The best way to decide is to understand what happens if you die without a will (intestate). Intestate estates must file a formal actions in probate court. If the estate assets are under $20,000 with no real estate and only one heir, it can be a quick process. Otherwise, an estate executor must be appointed by the court; if there is disagreement about who should be appointed, the court holds a hearing. The court also holds a hearing to determine intestacy and how assets should be distributed. Intestacy law distributes assets between spouses and children, spouses and parents, or siblings, depending on who survives. Probate fees are based estate assets and range from $100 for a small estate to $800 for a $1 million estate. Formal probate can take a year or more.
Next, it’s important to know what a will can do. Basically, a will contains your wishes about what assets should go to whom, when, and how. A will can include specific bequests or omit certain people from inheriting. Wills also name executors to administer the estate. For parents of minor or dependent children, wills appoint guardians.
If you ask an estate planning attorney, and you are, everyone should have a will. And those who have wills should review their wills annually to ensure that they still reflect their wishes. But here is a short list of people who absolutely need wills:
1. People who do not want their assets to be distributed by intestacy law.
Parents of minor or dependent children, so that they can appoint guardians and determine how their assets will be used for their children’s benefit.
People with considerable assets who want to avoid estate taxes (currently imposed on estates over $1 million) or to control how their assets are distributed.
People who foresee conflict among their family members.
People who plan on winning the lottery soon.
I recommend that most people have an attorney prepare their will. Maine has a standard will form available, and will templates are online. If you use standard forms, be aware that changing them can render them invalid. Also read them closely. For example, Maine’s will form grants real and personal property first to a living spouse, then to any living children. This may have unintended results if a child predeceases a widowed parent: in that case, the precedeased child’s children would not receive their parent’s share and a group of grandchildren would be disinherited.
Even with a will, most estates must file probate. Wills, however, allow informal probate, which mostly involves filling out forms and does not require hearings. There is less legal expense and delay. Executors can be appointed within weeks of a loved one’s death and estates may be closed after six months. Finally, 4 out of 5 estate attorneys surveyed say that making a will makes you live longer. It’s a little peace of mind on a hard subject.