When you die, your loved ones will be faced with a number of emotional, financial and legal situations and decisions. The last thing you want to do is add to their burden. Yet, if you don’t have a will, you may unintentionally do just that.
The following questions and answers can help you better understand what a will does and why it’s important to have one.
Q: What is a will?
A: A will is a legal document that can cover a variety of concerns. It spells out how your property and assets should be distributed after you die. It names an executor or personal representative who will oversee the distribution of your assets in accordance with your will. If you have minor children, dependents or children with special needs, it names a guardian for them. A will also names someone to manage assets you leave to a minor child or dependent.
Note: A will does not cover the distribution of life insurance proceeds, certain jointly owned or community property assets, retirement plan proceeds and revocable living trust assets.
Q: Do you have to be rich to need a will?
A: No. Almost everyone needs a will. The amount of property you own is irrelevant. Even if you own very little, you can designate a particular piece of jewelry, art or cash gift for a person or charity of your choosing.
Q: What happens if I die without a will?
A: That’s called dying intestate. When that happens, the court distributes your property to spouse, children, registered domestic partner or next of kin according to California's intestate succession laws. If you have no heirs, your property could go to the state.
Q: Can I write my own will, or do I need to hire an attorney?
A: A will must strictly comply with state law in order to be valid. That means it may have to contain specific language, be signed in a particular way and have a certain number of witnesses. If you have relatively few assets, you may be able to make a simple will using the California Statutory Will form. This form is available from the California State Bar. In any event, it is highly recommended that you consult with an attorney who specializes in this area. At attorney can talk with you about provisions you may want to consider, but might not think of on your own.
Q: Once I have a will, when should I update it?
A: It’s almost impossible to prepare a will that covers every possible circumstance, so it’s a good idea to review your will whenever significant changes happen in your life or in the lives of those you have named in your will. For instance, it’s time for a review if:
Your marital status changes.
There’s a change in your family through birth, adoption, marriage or death.
You move to a different state.
Your finances change significantly – for example, if you receive a large inheritance, make a major career change or open a business.
Q: Where should I keep my will?
A: Store your will in a safe place that is accessible to others after your death. Be sure a close friend or relative knows where it is. If an attorney prepares your will, have him or her retain a copy with a note stating where the original can be found. Do not keep the original in a safe deposit box because some states require safe deposit boxes to be sealed when the renter dies.