Do Single People Need Wills?

Learn important reasons why a single person should have a will, such as having a home, kids, or a nontraditional family.

Updated by , Attorney · George Mason University Law School

Having a will is usually a good idea regardless of whether you're married. If you're single and want to decide who receives your property and money in the future, you should have a will. And if you have children and want a say about who would raise them if you died, you can use a will to name a guardian for them.

What Is a Single Person in Estate Planning?

"Single person" could mean different things to different people. For the purposes of this article, it's anyone who isn't currently in a marriage (or other form of civil union) recognized by law. In other words, a single person for our purposes here is someone who:

  • has never been married
  • is divorced or widowed and not currently married to another person
  • is in a relationship with someone but not legally married to that person, or
  • isn't currently married but has children with another person.

When Doesn't a Single Person Need a Will?

Creating a will is a choice, not a legal requirement. For most people, having a will—and other estate planning documents—is a good idea. A will allows you to say who will be the guardian for your children and what happens to your property and money after you die.

Some people can get by without a will. Single people with little money, no real estate, and no children probably don't need a will if they are okay with the intestate succession laws.

If you don't have a will, your state's intestate succession laws will determine who gets your personal property and money. In most states, everything will go to your closest relatives—usually parents, children, or siblings if you're single. If none of those people are alive, your property and money will probably go to more distant relatives, like cousins, aunts, and uncles.

If you want your significant other, friends, other relatives (like step-siblings), or charities to inherit from you, then you should have a will.

When Should a Single Person Have a Will?

Again, a will avoids the default rules of intestate succession and lets you decide who gets what. Intestate succession laws don't consider your feelings and desires. For example, if you're estranged from your family, you probably don't want them to benefit financially from your death. In that case, you can use a will to give your money and property to other important people in your life.

Having a will also can help avoid the confusion and conflict that intestate succession could cause. If your loved ones don't get along and you don't have a will, they might fight over what they think you would have wanted and what they think they deserve.

Specifically, with a will, you can avoid confusion by:

  • naming a guardian for your children
  • controlling who receives your home or other real estate
  • giving gifts to particular people
  • transferring your ownership interest in a business
  • saying what happens to your digital assets
  • choosing what happens to your pets
  • giving to specific charities, and
  • naming an executor for your estate.

You Have Children

If you have minor children, you should use a will to nominate a guardian for them. A guardian will raise your children and manage their property if you die while they're still minors. If you want, instead of giving one person all those responsibilities, you can choose one guardian to have custody of your children and another to handle their finances.

You Own a Home or Other Real Estate

A home is the most valuable thing many people own. That someone might want a say in what eventually happens to their house, condo, or other real estate is understandable. For instance, if you're in a live-in relationship but not married to your partner, you might want a will to ensure that your partner will own the home after you die.

If you're the sole owner of a home, you can use your will to name your partner (or someone else) as the person who will inherit your home. Otherwise, a relative will receive your house through intestate succession, and your partner might be left with nowhere to live.

If you co-own your home with a partner and don't have a will, things could get messy. Intestate succession could make your parents, children, or other relatives half-owners of the house instead of your partner being the full owner. A will can make it clear who should get your portion.

That said, depending on how you and the co-owner own the property, a will might not change who gets the property when you die. If you own the property in a joint tenancy, the co-owner will automatically become the full owner after you die, and you can't use your will to give your portion to anyone else. For example, if you own your house with your sister as joint tenants, your sister will become the sole owner of the house if you die—even if your will says your partner or spouse should get your share.

Ownership of real estate can be complicated. If you have any questions about how you own your home, or about how to determine what will happen to your home after you die, get help from an attorney.

You Want to Give Specific Gifts to People

You might want to make personal gifts to people that become effective when you pass away. For example, you might want to give a family heirloom to your nephew or a monetary gift as a thank you to someone who made a difference in your life. But intestate succession laws don't allow you to make these kinds of gifts.

If you don't make these gifts during your lifetime, you can use a will to make sure they happen after you die.

You Own a Business

If you have a business, a will often can help transfer your interest in it. Although wanting to transfer a business interest can be a legitimate reason to have a will, using a will for this purpose might not be the best method. Other planning options, such as a trust, might save time—by avoiding probate—and money for your successors.

Not all business interests can be transferred with a will. If your business has several owners, its operating agreement or shareholder agreement might limit how business interests can be transferred. State law also might limit who can own an interest in certain types of businesses, like professional corporations.

To ensure a proper transfer of your business interest, work with an attorney to make a succession plan for your business.

You Have Digital Assets

Just about everyone has digital assets, and you might be able to pass some of them through your will.

It's very important that you leave your executor instructions about how to access these assets. The best way to provide this guidance is usually leaving a separate letter to your executor. You could also use that letter to leave instructions for accessing digital assets that you can't leave through your will (because you don't own them)—for example, email accounts, social media accounts, online memberships, subscription accounts, and apps on your phone or tablet.

For more information, see Can My Digital Assets Pass Through My Will?

You Have a Pet

While your dog, cat, or iguana may feel like another member of the family to you, the law usually treats pets as property. In your will, you can name the person you want to care for your pets after you die, as well as leave instructions on how you want them cared for. You also can leave money for the caretaker to use for your pets' care.

You Want to Give to Charity

If you don't intend to leave everything to friends or family, you can use a will to give a charity a specific gift or even all your property and money.

If you leave real estate or personal property to a charity, you can give specific instructions on how you want the charity to use it. But talk to the charity first to make sure it will be able to fulfill your specific wishes and even use the donation in the first place. Some charities will accept only monetary gifts and won't take other property.

You Want to Name an Executor

Every will should list someone as executor—sometimes called a "personal representative"—to handle probate. Probate is the court process to ensure assets are distributed according to a deceased person's will—or according to intestate succession laws if there's no will.

Naming an executor is important if you care about who will handle probate. The executor manages the deceased person's money during probate. The executor also helps make sure the deceased person's taxes and debts are paid and that all property and money are distributed according to the will (assuming there is one).

If you name an executor in your will, the court most likely will appoint that person, unless the named executor declines the job or the judge has a very good reason not to—like the person having a felony conviction for fraud or being incapacitated.

If you don't have a will or fail to name an executor in your will, the court will select someone to serve as a representative for your estate. This will often be a close relative, but it might not be the person you would choose.

When Does a Single Person Need More Than a Will?

A will is a great tool for ensuring your wishes live on after you die, but it's not the only estate planning tool single people should consider.

Even if you don't have a will, consider making a durable power of attorney for finances and a healthcare directive. Unlike a will, which only takes effect after you die, these documents can become effective when you are alive. They are especially important because they allow you to appoint someone to make financial and medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated.

Another estate planning document to consider is a living trust. A trust is similar to and actually has some advantages over a will. The main advantage is that it generally allows a person to give money and property at death without going through probate.

Making Your Estate Plan

With Quicken WillMaker & Trust, you can create your own state-specific will, a health care directive, a financial power of attorney, a living trust, and more.

If your situation isn't very straightforward, consider getting help from an experienced estate planning lawyer in your area. For instance, working with an attorney is a good idea if you have a very large or complicated estate, anticipate family squabbles, or have circumstances that require specific legal advice.

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