Reasons to have a will
Having a will in place can help minimize family disagreements and stress. By identifying who should receive certain assets and how assets should be distributed, you can relieve some of the stress your family will have to face when they settle your estate, since your heirs will not have to make these difficult decisions on their own and among one another.
To learn more about how to distribute your assets, see our article Inheritors and Beneficiaries.
Wills are especially important if you have young children. If you die without a will, the courts will decide who will become the guardian for your children, usually a family member. By creating a will you can specify who you would like to raise and care for your children if you should die.
To learn more about how to choose a guardian, see our article Choosing a Guardian for Minor Children.
How a will works
If you have a will when you die, the person you named in your will as your executor will present the will to a probate court and initiate a probate proceeding. (Probate is a process in which a court verifies the legality of the will and confirms the executor for the estate.) The will does not go into effect until after probate proceedings, which can take anywhere from 3 months to 3 years, depending on your state’s laws and the complexity of your estate. This means that property cannot be distributed, assets cannot be sold, and debts cannot be paid until after the court has granted its approval. Once the court has validated the will, the executor can begin to settle the estate and distribute assets to the beneficiaries named in the will.
To learn more about this process, see our article Understanding Probate.
Dying without a will
If you die without a proper will, your property will typically be divided by the court according to succession laws—essentially, the closest surviving relatives get everything, including assets and custody over minor children. Even if you don't have a will, your estate will have to go through the probate process. Dying without a will is known as dying “intestate,” and intestacy laws vary from state to state.
For more information on what happens if you die without a will, see our article Inheritance Rights.