Why Is Having a Will So Important?

March 17, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

The idea of writing a will can be daunting an any age, but having one is vital to ensuring that your assets are distributed to the right people.

According to Princeton Survey Research Associates International, only 42% of Americans have a will. The most common reason for not having one? Survey respondents just “have not gotten around to drawing a will up.” The survey also reveals that 81% of people 72 years of age and older have a will, while only 20% of Millennials do.

Dying Without a Will

If you die before you get around to writing a will, state law will dictate where your assets go. Assets typically are distributed in a hierarchy—spouse, children, siblings, and so on—but, again, this depends on your state.

Instead of allowing your money and belongings to be dispersed in this fashion, drawing up a will ensures that you are making the decisions about who receives your assets.

Precedence of Other Accounts

It is important to note that dispersal of certain types of accounts after your death is predetermined and cannot be altered with a will.

  • Joint accounts: If you own a house, bank account, or other large financial vehicle jointly with another person, your will cannot change the fact that these assets will go to the other person in the event of your death.
  • Retirement accounts and life insurance policies: Both are distributed to the beneficiaries you designated on each account or policy—not who you designate on your will.

While less than half of the survey respondents said they had a will, more than half indicated that they have granted someone legal authority to make decisions for them when it comes to medical treatment. This is what is called health care power of attorney or health care proxy.

All of this may seem daunting and a little frightening, regardless of your age. Here are a few frequently asked questions about wills that may ease your mind about drawing up your own.

Can you create a will yourself instead of going to a lawyer? Yes! Using a do-it-yourself software program such as LegalZoom or Quicken Willmaker may be acceptable in some cases. If you don’t have many assets to allocate and you don’t have a large household to worry about, this could be a viable option for you.

Where should I keep my will after it’s drafted? If your will was drafted by a lawyer, leaving it in the law office is the best option. If you went the do-it-yourself route, think about a safe place you can keep it at home, or put it in a safety deposit box at your bank.

Should I make a copy of my signed will? No. There should be only one signed and witnessed version of your individual will. However, you can give an unsigned version to whomever you choose.

What is the difference between a living will and a last will? A last will is used to dispose of your assets after you die. A living will is used to provide advance notice of your health care wishes to be followed should you become too ill to represent yourself.

Can I change my will? Yes! As long as you remain “sound of mind,” you can make changes to your will throughout your lifetime. If you need to make significant changes, though, it’s best to make a new will rather than amending your old one.