A Last Will and Testament (not to be confused with a Living Will Declaration) is a legal document that primarily (i) defines and dictates the beneficiaries of your assets after your death (other than assets owned jointly with rights of survivorship and assets that pass by beneficiary designation), (ii) names guardians for any minor children (if applicable) and (iii) determines your executor – the person in charge of managing your estate after your death. If you or your parent(s) do not yet have a Will, it is time to put one in place.
Why Do I Need A Will?
There are several reasons to have a Last Will and Testament, but perhaps the most important is to control who receives your assets upon your death. State law dictates the manner in which assets titled in your name alone and not governed by a valid beneficiary designation are distributed, and the default rules of law may not be consistent with your goals. Even if some assets are structured such that they will pass automatically upon death (for example, if there is joint ownership with rights of survivorship or if a beneficiary designation is in place), it is important to have a Will to act as a safety-net to distribute any remaining assets, such as real estate, tangible personal property, etc.
In addition to creating a Will, it is critical to confirm that your accounts/assets are structured consistently with the Will’s distribution structure. For example, if your Will directs the distribution of assets in a particular way, but an outdated beneficiary designation is still on file in connection with a particular asset, the beneficiary designation associated with that asset will control, and the Will’s distribution provisions will not speak to that asset. Proper planning, and alignment of the Will’s provisions and each asset’s records, can ensure that your distribution goals are reached.
When Do I Need a Will?
Anyone who has accumulated assets (including tangible personal property) should have a Last Will and Testament. Without a Will, everything you own (other than assets owned jointly with rights of survivorship and assets that pass by beneficiary designation) will be distributed according to your state’s default laws. You also need a Will in order to name the executors who will be tasked with settling your estate and ensuring that the terms of your Will are carried out in accordance with your wishes. While it becomes more important to establish a Will after you have children, since a Will allows you to name a guardian for them, most adults should have at least a basic Will.
Consult with a legal advisor to help prepare and establish a Will for you and your loved ones. Online options for drafting a Will exist, but you should discuss this with a legal professional since each state has different laws and it can be complicated.