You have worked hard your entire life, you have been disciplined with saving, you live within your means, and it has resulted in an accumulation of assets that will ultimately be passed on at your death. What if those assets that you had worked your entire life to accumulate were distributed without any say from you?
This is what happens when you die intestate – meaning you die without a valid will. There are three ways in which assets can be passed on:
- Contract (beneficiary designation)
- Operation of law (JTWROS/TBE designations)
- By will (any individually owned assets)
This post will focus on the last one. While death is not something one probably ponders too often, having a plan in place when that day comes will be something your surviving family members will be forever grateful for. The document that outlines your wishes as to the distribution of your assets upon death is a will – the most important estate planning document. It might be shocking to know that a document with such importance has only been executed by 40% of adults. There are numerous “reasons” someone may put off creating a will. It could be the reluctance to face death, no desire to think about what happens to your assets after your gone, the lack of understanding of the consequences when you die intestate, or simply procrastination.
Below, I will outline the consequences of dying intestate, the most important reasons for executing a will, and if you are one of the 60% of adults that does not have a valid will; hopefully by the end of the post you will be motivated to do so.
Every family dynamic is different, and when it comes to talking to your loved ones about money, inheritance, or most financial topics, the conversations can often lead to arguments/fights. This situation can escalate dramatically in the event you die intestate. While you yourself will not have to deal with the consequences of dying intestate, your loved ones will. It will almost certainly lead to wasted time, frustration, stress and potentially broken relationships amongst those that mean the most to you. When you die without a valid will, the intestacy laws of your state will determine how your property is distributed at death, not you.
This presents numerous problems, not least of which, is the fact that what you want as to the distribution of your property, and what occurs based on the state’s intestacy laws, are most likely not one in the same. Intestacy laws are as fair and equitable as possible, but they were developed to provide the greatest good for the greatest number, irrespective of the special needs or unique circumstances that may surround your family. The deceased estate owner has absolutely no control over who gets what or how much, a position I would presume one would not want to be in. As an example, you could have a son or daughter with a physical or mental disability that needs more financial support than your other child, who is perfectly healthy. A state’s intestacy laws does not take this into consideration, and the child with a disability would receive the same share of the estate as the healthy child. This is just one example of many where a will would solve a preventable problem. There are no specific bequests that can be made, costs are usually greater and there are no special considerations given when estates follow intestacy laws. Ultimately, there is no way to ensure that the objectives of the deceased estate owner will be met without a will. When writing about a topic, it is best to be as objective as possible, present both sides of the issue or topic being addressed, weigh the pros and cons and let the reader formulate their own opinion. However, when it comes to dying intestate compared to executing a will, I cannot think of any advantages when it comes to the former.
There is a myriad of reasons for executing a will, but I wanted to focus on what I would consider the 3 most important.
- The first goes back to the fundamental reason why one should execute a will – to make sure your assets are distributed according to your wishes. If you have worked your entire life to accumulate assets that will ultimately pass to loved ones, would you not want to make sure you are the one who decides who gets what and how much? A will lets you explicitly state your wishes – allowing you as the testator (the person who creates and executes the will), to make specific bequests, consider special circumstances, selectively choose beneficiaries, etc. Moreover, it should eliminate any uncertainty or confusion regarding the distribution of your estate.
- The second reason would be to save time, money, and stress for family members. Having a valid will, while it may not make estate administration fast, streamlines the process compared to an estate being administered via intestacy laws. Additionally, anything that involves more court administration (intestacy), will almost certainly lead to higher costs.
- The third reason (and some may put this above the second) is a will allows families with minor children to appoint a guardian for their children, rather than a court appointing one for you. While the court could appoint the same guardian you would choose, it would not be wise to leave that to chance.
As a financial professional, it is my job to educate and empower clients, and guide them on a path that maximizes their chances of achieving their objectives. Estate planning is a crucial part of this process, and a will is at the center of every estate plan.