Most Americans don't have a will, to say nothing of a more comprehensive plan to avoid probate or save on estate taxes. Do you need to start planning what happens to your estate when you die? It depends on your age, health, wealth, and innate level of caution.
We've sorted our tips into broad categories of family situation and age. But keep in mind that age is an imprecise proxy for life expectancy, which is affected by all sorts of other factors -- smoking, extreme sports, and driving a motorcycle, for example. It's up to you to add or subtract a few years based on your health and lifestyle.
You're in Your Twenties or Thirties and Single
At your age, there's not much point in putting a lot of energy into estate planning. Unless your lifestyle is unusually risky or you have a serious illness, you're unlikely to die for a long, long time.
If you're an uncommonly rich twenty- or thirty-something though, write a will. (Bricks can fall on anyone.) That way you can leave your possessions to any recipient you choose -- your boyfriend, your favorite cause, the nephew who thinks you're cool. If you don't write a will, whatever you leave behind will probably go to your parents. (For more on creating a simple will, see Nolo's article The Simple Will: No Frills, No Fuss, No Anxiety.)
You're Paired Up, But Not Married
If you've got a life partner but no marriage certificate, a will is a must-have document. Without a will, state law will dictate where your property goes after your death, and your closest relatives will inherit everything. Unmarried partners generally get nothing unless you have registered as domestic partners or entered into a civil union (allowed only in some states), in which case surviving partners can inherit just like surviving spouses.
Another option to make sure that your partner isn't left out in the cold after your death is to own big-ticket items, such as houses and cars, together in "joint tenancy" with right of survivorship. Then, when one of you dies, the survivor will automatically own 100% of the property. (To learn more about legal issues facing unmarried couples, see Nolo's Living Together area.)
You Have Young Children
First and foremost, get yourself a will. A will allows you to leave your property to whomever you choose and, more importantly, names a guardian to care for your children. The guardian will take over if both you and the other parent are unavailable. If you fail to name a guardian, a court will appoint someone, possibly one of your parents. (For more on this, see Nolo's article Leaving an Inheritance for Children.)
Note that if you don't have a will, some of your property may go not to your spouse, but directly to your children. The problem with the children inheriting directly is that the surviving parent may need to get court permission to spend or invest the money -- a waste of time and money in most families. To make an online will right now, go to Nolo's Online Will. You simply pick a package, complete a simple interview online, and then print out your will.
Second, think about buying life insurance to replace your earnings, just in case. Term life insurance is relatively cheap, especially if you're young and don't smoke. You can shop for the best bargain online, by consulting free services that compare the rates of lots of companies. (For more on this, see Nolo's article Using Life Insurance to Provide for Your Children.)
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