You need to elect someone to handle your affairs after you pass onYou'll need to assign one honest and trustworthy individual to be the executor of your estate. (Note: It does not have to be a member of your family.) The executor or executrix is responsible for inventorying your assets and property, making sure any lingering debts and taxes (including estate taxes) are paid, properly dispersing your assets, and informing your banks and creditors that you are deceased, as well as guiding your estate through probate court. (Note: All assets are officially dispersed through probate court, regardless of whether there is a will or not, but having a will in place makes this process much simpler.) If you do not choose an executor, the state will appoint one for you, and anyone can petition the court to hold this position.
If you don't have a legally binding will, the state will decide who gets whatAn “oral will” (final requests spoken aloud in front of witnesses) and a “holographic will” (a document drawn up by you without the presence of witnesses) may not have much legal bearing in court. A formally prepared Will signed by two, or sometimes three witnesses, can be the best way to ensure that your money and assets are left to the heirs you intend to leave them to. Intestacy laws vary from state by state, but in the event that there is no Will, a person's assets are usually awarded to immediate family first (spouse, children, and parents). If there is no remaining immediate family, your assets are often dispersed between your siblings and their children, or your grandparents, or your uncles and aunts and their children.
A will establishes legal guardianship of your children if they are still minorsParents of young children should be especially proactive about making a will, because a Will establishes who your children's guardians would be in the event that you (or you and your spouse) die prematurely. If there is no Will in place, that decision is also left to the state. If you have a trust, a business, or a large amount of assets you would like to divide up between your children now or when they reach a certain age, your Will should make your intentions clear.
If you live in a community property stateIt's important to mention that some states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin), consider property that is owned by a married couple as “community property,” meaning that any assets purchased during the marriage are owned equally by both husband and wife (this also includes any debts). If one of you dies without a Will specifying who gets what, the intestacy laws of your state will decide for you.
You can amend your will at any time
If your marital status changes, or you decide you'd like to update the names of your beneficiaries, your Will can be formally amended at any time. You can simply draft a new Will or attach a Codicil to your existing Will. Do note that some states also require Wills and Codicils to be notarized, so be sure to consult the intestacy laws of your specific state. In either case, having your Will notarized can only enhance its legitimacy.
If you're looking for legal advice regarding your will, an attorney who specializes in estate laws in your state of residence should be able to answer any questions you may have. You can also find more information about creating a legally binding will, preparing for the unexpected, and estate planning in the Protective Learning Center.