I have been thinking about wills a great deal lately.
My husband recently accepted a job in another state, and we took this major life upheaval as a reminder that we should update our will. We had not updated the will to include our second child after he was born, nor appointed a new executor after my father, who was our original executor, passed away in 2013.
Coincidentally, our appointment with the lawyer fell on the same day the news broke that legendary musician Prince died without a will.
I had been feeling somewhat irresponsible for going so long without an update to our will, so it shocked me to learn that a multi-millionaire musician, who was known for his uncompromising control over his music and career, could have neglected to write a will. Considering the fact that my husband and I are still in our
mid late thirties and do not (yet) control a $300 million estate, nor a vault containing hundreds of hours of unreleased music, it would never have occurred to me that we could be more responsible about estate planning than 57-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson.
To be fair to Prince, he probably assumed he was immortal (like the rest of us did), he was unmarried at the time of his death, and his only known child died in infancy. These factors would reduce any urgency one might feel about writing a will.
So how do we mere mortals decide whether and when to write a will? After all, you need to answer the buring question, “do I need a will?” Here is what you need to consider along with reasons you need a will:
(More Than) Diamonds and Pearls
You might think that wills are for people who have enormous estates, like Prince. But there is more to writing a will than just allocating assets—and more to assets than just money in the bank. Here are four reasons you need a will even if you live modestly:
1. To determine who will care for your minor children.
My husband and I did not write our first will until after our oldest child was born. We live several states away from our closest family members, and if something were to happen to both of us, the state of Indiana would decide who would take care of our child. While it’s unlikely that two parents would die at the same time, I sleep better at night knowing that my husband and I have decided ahead of time who will take care of our boys in that unlikely event.
2. To choose the person who will act as your executor.
An executor is the person appointed to take care of the affairs of the deceased person. That means the executor pays final bills, cancels credit cards, notifies banks and other establishments, and files the deceased’s final tax return. Considering the amount of work and organization necessary to fulfill these duties, it’s important to choose someone trustworthy and capable.
Without a will, the court chooses an executor. In general, a surviving spouse will be the first choice, followed by adult children or other family members. Since the executor has control over your estate, it could be disastrous if the court appoints someone who can’t handle the job.
3. To protect your family and loved ones.
Without a will, it is up to the state to decide what happens to your property, and that generally means your next of kin will get everything. For instance, the courts in Prince’s home state of Minnesota are right now working to determine if an inmate in Colorado who claims to be Prince’s son and sole heir is, in fact, the musician’s child. If the man’s claim of Princely paternity turns out to be true, that could mean that all six of the singer’s still-living siblings and half-siblings will not see a penny of his estate.
Individuals in blended families have to be particularly cautious, since a death in the family often brings about ugly confrontations and reneged promises. This can be avoided if those promises are legally binding through a well-written will.
4. To speed up the probate process for your heirs.
While every estate must pass through probate, whether or not there is a will, having a will in place can help speed up the process. When someone dies intestate, the probate court must decide how to divide up the estate without any guidance from the deceased, which can make the already-frustrating probate process go through long delays.
Sign O’ the Times
Even if you are on board with all of the above reasons for writing a will, it can be difficult to determine if you are at the right stage of your life to put one together. Often, it takes a “triggering” event to remind you that it’s a good idea to get your estate in order. Here are some of the common times you might want to write (or update) your will:
1. Your marital status changes.
Getting married is a very common triggering event for writing a will, but it’s important to remember that getting divorced, remarried, or buying a home with a long-term partner you are not married to are also good times to write or revisit a will.
2. You have children.
Making sure your children will be taken care of no matter what happens to you is an excellent reason to write a will. Updating your will with each new birth—even though most boilerplate wills cover the possibility that you might have more children—is also a good idea.
3. You start a business.
No matter how you set up your business, striking out on your own can have major consequences for your estate when you pass away.
4. You purchase a house.
A house is a major asset, and it’s important that your estate plan covers the distribution of your major assets.
5. You haven’t updated your will in the last 5-10 years.
Things change over time, including health, relationships, finances, and local and national laws. Everyone should revisit their wills every so often to make sure their estate plans still reflect their priorities.
Money Don’t Matter 2 Night—You Can Still Afford a Will
The cost of writing a will can be a deterrent for many, especially if you feel as though you don’t have enough assets to make it worthwhile to draw one up. But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get the basic will you need.
Consulting with a lawyer is going to both be the most expensive option, as well as the one that best protects your wishes if you have a complex estate or circumstances. For instance, if you have children from multiple marriages, you might want to consult a lawyer rather than try to DIY.
The cost to have a lawyer draw up your will varies based on what region you live in and what your specific needs are. However, you can probably expect to spend at least $300 for a basic will, although costs can range up to $1,500 or more.
If that’s too rich for your blood, and you have a relatively basic will in mind, you can look into drafting a will yourself with an online legal service such as LegalZoom.com. Prices for their wills start at $69, which makes them an excellent budget choice for those with basic needs for their last will and testament.
Life is Just a Party, and Parties Weren’t Meant to Last
Thinking about the fact that you will someday join the funky purple party in the sky is not exactly anyone’s idea of a good time. It’s completely understandable how anyone, even savvy businessmen like Prince, can put off writing a will for years and years.
That’s why you better write a will now—before the grim reaper come knocking on your door.
Have you ever wondered “do I need a will?” Have you completed you will? If not, what’s holding you back?