You may have certain items of high financial or emotional value you’d like specific relatives or friends to receive after you’re gone. The only way to ensure your wishes are followed is to execute a last will and testament. Executing a valid and enforceable will can be a great benefit to your family. It can protect your spouse and children by setting out exactly how you want your property distributed after you die.
Although most people should have a will, it’s not essential for everyone. You may not need a will if all three of the following factors are true about you: (1) you don’t own much property (real estate, personal property, cash, stocks, etc.), (2) you have no children, and (3) you truly understand, and agree with, the way your property will be distributed under state law after you die (a topic that will be addressed in a follow-up article). Otherwise, you should have a will to ensure that both personal and real property end up in the right hands. Personal property includes bank accounts, securities, jewelry, etc. Real property includes any land and buildings owned at the time of death.
Let’s look at the most important reasons you should have a will.
You choose how your property is distributed.A will is a legally-enforceable document that allows you to determine how your estate will be distributed after you die. By determining who will receive what from your estate, a will reduces the risk of family arguments over your property.
You choose who will care for minor children. A will allows parents to make informed decisions about who should care for their minor children after they die. When there is no will, a court determines who will care for the children and their interests. Appointing a caretaker in your will lets you to designate someone you trust. Making this decision ahead of time also gives you the chance to speak with the appointee, which allows them to mentally, emotionally, and financially prepare to care for your children.
You can disinherit individuals. Just as a will allows you to choose those to whom your estate should be distributed, it also allows you to decide who should receive nothing. Without a will, your estate, or part of it, could end up in the hands of those you would not wish to receive your property.
You avoid a lengthy probate process. Contrary to what most people believe, estates may be required to go through the probate process whether there is a valid will or not. When a will exists but is contested, invalid, or unclear, formal probate may be required. A valid will can speed up the probate process by informing the court of your wishes and how you want your estate divided. In the absence of a valid will, the court must decide, according to state law, how to divide your estate. That can be a long, drawn-out process, often causing more heartache for relatives and preventing immediate receipt of property left to them.
Bianca Ybarra is a graduate of the University of Houston Law Center and a member of the State Bar of Texas.