Last Will & Testament: The one legal document everyone absolutely, positively needs

Last Will & Testament: The one legal document everyone absolutely, positively needs

by Reiko Joseph, August 2009

It comes as no surprise that over 70% of Americans don't have a last will and testament. Most people aren't eager to draft any legal document, let alone one that deals with life's biggest certainty. But it's a lot easier than people realize. And the peace of mind—especially for parents with young children—is well worth the time.

Why you absolutely, positively need a last will and testament.

In a nutshell, a last will and testament ensures that your wishes are honored. These include life-impacting decisions about who receives your property and who raises your young children. Most people don't realize that without a last will, the government will make these critical decisions for you. Here are some of the top reasons to create a last will as soon as possible.

1. You can have a say in how your children are raised.

If you're a parent with young children, it is absolutely essential that you keep an up-to-date last will and testament. The reason is simple. You should have a say in who raises your children in your absence. Not the courts. Not state law. If you want your child raised in a certain place, with people who share your values, you need to indicate this in your last will. You simply can't assume the courts will place your children with the guardian of your choice. Keeping your will updated (ideally after the birth of each new child) will also help prevent ugly custody battles between family members.

2. You can ensure your property goes to the people you love.

You may not think you have enough property to warrant writing a will, but if you own anything of value—sentimental, symbolic or otherwise—you should list it in a will. This is your opportunity to show your loved ones you care and are thinking about them. If you do happen to own property of significant monetary value, indicating how it should be divided will reduce the possibility of confusion or family conflict down the road.

3. You can continue caring for your pets after you're gone.

Don't assume the people closest to you will automatically care for your pets in your absence. Without specifically naming a pet guardian in your will or setting aside funds for your pet's care, Fluffy or Fido may face an uncertain future. Animal shelters are crowded with pets orphaned by their caring but unprepared owners.

4. You can give more of your estate to loved ones and less to the government.

All wills are subject to probate court, the legal system through which your debts are settled and any remaining property is distributed to your heirs. In the absence of a last will, the courts will appoint a court administrator to settle your affairs, which can eat up to 10% of your estate's value. It also means your property will be tied up much longer—up to 3 years in some cases. For dependents, this can be an extremely long difficult wait and potentially a financial burden to them if there are no allocated funds to pay for funeral costs and other expenses.

5. You can select the play list for your own funeral.

One of the great things about a last will is that you can outline specific wishes for your funeral. Prefer jazz to organ music? Specify it in your last will. Don't like pink carnations? Indicate what kinds of flowers you'd like displayed at your funeral. Don't want to be buried in a cemetery? Leave detailed instructions for cremation or a burial at sea. You can also have the final word. The testament portion of your last will gives you an opportunity to say what's on your mind—for all eternity.

6. You can leave money to a cause near and dear to your heart.

One of the best ways to support a good cause is to donate to it in your last will. It's a great way to leave a lasting, positive impact on the world.

So now that you're convinced, how do you create a last will and document?

Not all last wills require the assistance of an attorney. In fact, most can be done easily online—for a fraction of the cost. LegalZoom can help you create a will in minutes, from the comfort of your own home. Simply answer a series of straightforward questions online and LegalZoom reviews your work, prepares your documents and ships them to you along with simple instructions for executing and storing your will. Updating your will is just as fast and easy. For most people, the entire process takes less than 20 minutes—scant time indeed for a lifetime of peace of mind.

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