Most single people should have a will. A will can help you determine who will get your property (including your home, business, pets, and digital assets), name guardians for your children, and name an executor. A will also puts your wishes in writing so there’s no confusion about your intentions.
If you don’t have a will, your state’s intestate succession laws will determine who gets your property. In most states, this means that if you don’t have a will, your property will go to your closest relatives. For single people, recipients are usually parents, children, or siblings. If none of those people are alive to take your property, it will go to more distant relatives, like cousins, aunts, and uncles. Under these rules, your friends, significant others, and other relatives (like step-siblings) will get nothing.
To avoid the default rules of intestate succession, make a will. Under a will, you decide who gets what and the default rules do not apply. In your will, you name the people you want to receive your property and what specific property you want them to receive.
For many people who own a home, it is the most valuable thing they have. If you’re single, you certainly want to decide for yourself who should get it if you die. This may be especially true if you co-own your home with a partner and want your partner to own the entire home after you die. Things could get messy if intestate succession makes your parents or children half-owners of the house instead. You can use a will to make it clear who should get your portion.
However, depending on how you and the co-owner “hold” the property, a will may not change who gets the property when you die. If you hold the property in joint tenancy, the co-owner will automatically become the full owner after you die, and you cannot use your will to give your portion to anyone else. If you have any questions about how your own your home, or about how to determine what will happen to your home after you die, get help from an attorney.
Also—separate from the issue of co-ownership—if your house is the only asset you’re concerned about, you may be able to use a transfer on death deed to decide who will get it after you die.
If you have a business, a will can transfer your interest in it if you don’t have an agreement with other owners of the business. Work with an attorney if you want to make an exit strategy for your business, have multiple partners, or want to transfer the business to your child at your death. A lawyer will be familiar with your state laws on transferring business interests and can help minimize estate and income tax consequences.
It’s very important that you leave your executor instructions about how to access these assets. This is usually best done in a separate letter to your executor. You might also use that letter to leave instructions for digital assets that you cannot leave through your will (because you do not own them)—for example, email accounts, social media accounts, online memberships, subscription accounts, and apps on your phone or tablet.
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 a person you want to have your pets after you die, as well as instructions on how you want them cared for. You can also leave money to a person to use to care for your pets.
If you do not intend to leave your property to friends or family, you might want to leave your property to charity. For the charity to get your property, you will need to state this in your will. You can also give specific instructions on how you want the charity to use your property, but talk to the charity first to make sure they will be able to fulfill your specific wishes.
Separate from determining who gets your property, you can use your will to nominate a guardian for your children. A guardian is a person who will raise your children and manage their property if you die while they’re still minors. You can make the same person responsible for the custody side and the financial side, or you can name a separate guardian to manage the finances. In your will, you can let the court know your wishes. The guardian you name won’t automatically take custody – the court will schedule a hearing and determine who should be the guardian. (And if your child has another legal parent, that person will almost always be named as the custodial parent.) But, the court will take your stated preferences seriously. Get help from an attorney if you are concerned about this.
If you don’t have a will, the court will select someone to serve as a representative for your estate. This will often be a “close” relative, but it may not be the person you would choose for the job. If you use your will to name an executor, and the court will give that person the power (and obligation) to wrap up your estate unless it has a very good reason not to.
Having a will can help avoid confusion because your wishes are in black and white. 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. If you have a will, your wishes are in writing for your loved ones to see. If you’re concerned about your loved ones still fighting even if you have a will, learn about how you can avoid a challenge to your will and get help from an attorney.
In addition to making a will, also consider making durable powers of attorney for finances and healthcare directives. You can use these documents to leave your financial and medical wishes for your loved ones, and you can also use them to name a trusted person to make financial or medical decisions for you when you cannot make them for yourself.
With Quicken WillMaker & Trust you can create your own state-specific will, health care directives, financial powers of attorney, and more. If you have a very large or complicated estate, if you anticipate family squabbles, or if you want specific legal advice about your situation, get help from an experienced estate planning lawyer in your area.