I Do Not Have a Will - So What?
You do not have a will. You have never even thought about getting one. Yet your friends and parents recoil in horror every time you tell them this. Just what will happen if you die and you do not have a will?
The answer to this question depends on your specific situation. The quick answer is this: if you die without a will, all your property must go through the probate process to determine what happens to it. People generally want to avoid probate for a few reasons. The first is that generally it is more expensive to go through the probate process than to distribute your possessions by using a will. The court has to appoint a person (usually called an administrator or adminstratrix) to gather up all your property and either sell it and disburse the money or give the property to someone. If you have a will, you get to pick the person who will do this rather than relying on a stranger appointed by the court.
The biggest question is: Who gets the money? With a will, you get to decide who gets your property or the money from its sale, and how much. If you do not have a will, each state has specific rules as to who will receive your property. For example, several states provide that the proceeds from your estate go to your spouse, your children, and then your parents and so on. What if you promised your grandmother's engagement ring to your niece? If you do not have a will, as far as the state is concerned, it will probably be the property of your wife.
The use of a will is even more important for parents with young children. A will can specify who will become the guardian of the children in the event both spouses do not survive. This is obviously not an issue that should be left to the state and requires thorough consideration and discussion with potential guardians beforehand. By naming guardians for your children in your will, you can be certain that they will be taken care of by loved ones whom you trust and have discussed the matter with beforehand.
Wills are not expensive to draft, however, and each state has specific laws that must be followed. Contact an attorney competent in wills, trusts, and estate law for further information.