I’ve been getting back to basics the last few months, so this time I’m focusing on estate planning. “I don’t have an estate,” you may be saying. “Why do I need a will”?
I’m just going to put it out there: if you are old enough to be reading this, you almost certainly need a will and some other basic estate documents. Let’s start off with why you need a will:
1. To save your loved ones from pain: the people you leave behind will be in charge of getting your estate legally settled. If you don’t have a will the probate court will decide what happens to your belongings according to state law. This takes extra work from the people you leave behind. And when your wishes are clear and documented there is less opportunity for arguments among your loved ones. Along those lines, you also need a will…
2. To make sure the right people get your stuff: if you literally have no possessions and you don’t care about the people you’re leaving behind, maybe you DON’T need a will. But as an example, your brother may not get your car and your girlfriend may not get any of your money if you don’t have a will. Anything you do have will be divided according to state law, so you have no say in where it all goes.
a. Note about beneficiaries: if you have designated beneficiaries on accounts like your 401(k) or on your life insurance, those designations trump what is written in your will. So if you leave everything to your girlfriend in your will but your mom is designated as the beneficiary of your life insurance, your mom gets the life insurance proceeds. So be careful that your beneficiary designations are consistent with your will!
3. To save money and time: as I said, if you die without a will the probate courts will settle your estate according to state law. You can make that process go a lot more smoothly and inexpensively if you have a will, since the probate court only has to review the will. Don’t stick your family with extra legal bills after you’re gone.
Other documents you should get as part of your estate planning package:
1. Legal and Healthcare Powers of Attorney: you will need to designate someone to make decisions for you in case you can’t make them yourself. You may designate different people for these two important roles, or you can make it the same person. It’s up to you if you do the planning up front. Otherwise, your closest relative will generally make these decisions…and maybe your loved ones will fight about it in court.
2. Living Will/Healthcare Directive: this document explains what your wishes are for certain health-related circumstances, just in case you can’t explain these wishes yourself. So for example, you get to tell everyone whether you want intravenous feeding if you can’t feed yourself, or whether you want the doctors to sustain your life if you have an incurable disease. Again, this means you get to decide what you want instead of your loved ones fighting it out.
“OK,” you may be saying, “I’m convinced. I will go online and find one of those $39.95 will-package jobbies and get it done.” Folks, I BEG you not to do this. Please hire a professional to do this important work. The cost of making a mistake is immeasurably more than the cost of having it done professionally (plan on $1k - $2k in the Seattle area for a basic document package, as an example). You don’t know what you don’t know, and if the language of this online will is a bit off or if you don’t get it properly witnessed it is invalid and will not be acted upon. You’re back to your state’s probate laws. It is SO worth it to have professional help here.