If you died tomorrow, who would inherit your assets? Your house? Your Snapfish albums?
If you're like half of American adults with children, you haven't made a will and therefore — legally speaking — haven't answered these questions.
A survey from RocketLawyer.com, a legal services web site, last month found that 50% of Americans with children do not have a will. Even more alarming, 41% of baby boomers (age 55-64) don't have one. The top three reasons cited by survey respondents for not having a will: procrastination, a belief that they don't need one and cost.
So what happens if you die without a will (known as dying "intestate")? The state will decide how your property is distributed. "You don't want the default to be what the state law is — sometimes it could work out in your favor, but sometimes it can't," says Jason Smolen, an estate planning lawyer and founding principal of SmolenPlevy.
Shifts in demographic patterns are making estate plans even more critical. As the survey notes, in the past five years the number of unmarried couples has jumped, according to the National Marriage Project. Throw a child into the mix and the surviving partner doesn't get the same protections that are default under law for a married couple.
Don't forget your 'digital estate'
And no doubt you've heard about the digital afterlife. According to the RocketLawyer survey, 63% of respondents don't know what happens to their digital assets when they die. Traditional estate planning doesn't take into account this emerging class of assets — and it's not just thinking about what you want to happen to your Facebook page or Match.com profile.
Your survivors may not even be aware of the extent of your online presence. Consider your online bank accounts, email accounts, iPod and all its music, blogs, photo albums, YouTube account, eBay account, PayPal account, e-book collection, Gilt Group subscription…you get the picture. Even your U.S. savings bonds are online.
Most popular online account services like Facebook, Gmail, LinkedIn and Twitter have developed deceased-user policies, which provide the family or executor of the deceased user with information about what's required to access the account.
"This is a problem most people don't know they have," says Smolen. His advice? Make a list of your accounts and passwords and print it out. His firm is in the process of setting up an online service for their clients to catalog their digital assets, as are others. Both RocketLawyer and LegalZoom have introduced services to address this rising need, allowing consumers to create a trust to manage their digital assets.
How to create a will: a primer
- List your significant assets, financial advisors, retirement plans, divorce papers, premarital agreements, and any other such documents.
- Gather employment benefits statements, life insurance policies, deeds to real property, partnership and business agreements and the last two years of income tax returns.
- If you're married, each spouse makes a separate will.
- Decide who will inherit your property. After you make your first choices, choose alternate beneficiaries, too, in case your first choices don't survive you.
- Choose an executor to handle your estate. Every will must name someone to serve as executor, to carry out the terms of the will. Be sure to let that person know you want them to serve as the executor so it's not a surprise.
- Identify a guardian for your children. If your children are under 18, decide who you want to raise them in the event that you and their other parent can't. You should also pick someone who can manage your children's property.
- Identify other decision makers to carry out your health & money choices for you if you're incapacitated.
- With that information, you can create a will online (there are plenty of online options and tips), or hire an estate planning attorney to help you (they can charge hourly rates of $100 to $500 or more).
Source: National Association of Estate Planners and Councils