When we met with a financial advisor for the first time in 2011, the very first thing he told us was to make a will. Neither my wife or I had a will.
A will is a legal document you use to leave property to close family members, friends, or charities. In your will, you name beneficiaries to inherit your property, an executor to wrap up your estate, guardians to care for your young children, and caretakers to own and care for your pet. You can set up a trust for money inherited by children. You can also forgive debts owed to you and state how you want your debts, expenses, and taxes to be paid.
So I got some horrible pirated copy of will software (Quicken Willmaker?), and made one. At the time we only had one child, so everything goes to him, and now we’re covered I guess. At least the planner is off my back, anyway.
I was curious what happens when people die without a will, so I researched it. That’s called dying intestate. Sounds like the rules of the particular US state you live in apply, and if it the asset happens to be property in a different state, the rules of that state may apply as well.
With that caveat in mind, these are the general, common rules for intestate death. Assume “equal shares” when dividing amongst (x) relatives of the same class:
Single, no kids
- relatives on each side, divided in half
Married, no kids
* If the item is “separate property” and not “community property” it will be split between spouse, sibling, and parents.
In California, if you are married and you die without a will, what your spouse gets depends in part on how the two of you owned your property – as separate property or community property. Generally, community property is property acquired while you were married, and separate property is property you acquired before marriage. There are a couple of big exceptions: Gifts and inheritances given to one spouse are separate property, even if acquired during marriage.
- spouse, 100%* or 50%**
- children, 50%**
* If all children are the children of your surviving spouse
** If children are from a different spouse
direct relatives only, by strongest relation:
- descendants of parents (siblings, nieces, and nephews)
- descendants of grandparents (aunts and uncles)
- If the state recognizes domestic partnership, same as spouse
So yeah – the main thing we’ve learned is that you really, really, REALLY don’t want to die without a will if you are not formally married. Once you are married in a form the state recognizes, the intestate rules seem… reasonable-ish… to me? I guess if …
- you end up married to someone you hate
- have kids you end up not wanting to be associated with post-death
- have kids or ex-spouses from other marriages that need special treatment
- want to give some of your estate to someone you’re not normally related to
… you’d need a special will to avoid the normal intestate rules. And it is generally a good idea to have a will; the financial planner wasn’t wrong.
Even the Willmaker software I used seemed like massive overkill at the time. Wills aren’t complicated; it’s basically one person describing what they want to happen with all the crap they collected in life after they die. Since I last researched this in 2011:
you can make your own free online will at https://www.doyourownwill.com/
There’s also this service for $70 at https://www.legalzoom.com/personal/estate-planning/last-will-and-testament-overview.html – I have used these guys before for patent stuff and they are solid.
Nolo is a very well known name for DIY legal docs at https://store.nolo.com/products/online-will-nnwill.html for $60 but it’s awfully damn cheeky to charge you for a “1 year subscription” to your will.
Sounds like you do need the document signed by observers though:
You need to sign your will in front of two adults who do not inherit under your will. These people don’t need to read the will, but each must sign it as a witness. Store this original document in a safe place, such as a fire-proof box.
TL;DR if you are not formally married but in a relationship, you definitely need a will. For everyone else, it’s a good idea, but you can safely ignore it if you are comfortable with the intestate rules where you live … though I have no idea how much those rules really vary from state to state.