A common retort when I ask people if they have a last will and testament is that they do not have any assets, so why do they need a will. Even if you have a small estate, a will provides some basic advantages over dying intestate. With a will you can provide all of the essential details of who will get what, and when they will get it after you die. Although all states have a law that establishes who gets your assets upon your death, which is the statute of descent and distribution, having a basic estate plan allows you to direct who will get your assets.
That objective becomes particularly important when you are in an unwed or same-sex relationship and you want that person to receive your assets upon your death. It is also important if you are married and have children, but want your spouse to receive all of your assets upon your death. Also, if you are not married and/or do not have any children and want your assets to go to a friend, a charity, or if you have a child that you do not want to receive any of your assets. As you can see, regardless of the size of your estate, or the presence/absence of any of the above factors, a will is simply a planning tool that accomplishes the following factors:
Disposition of Property: The will designates who will receive your assets upon your death. Specific items of property may be given to specific persons and/or a general gift of all remaining property is made to specified persons.
Executor/Executrix: Appointment of the person who will have the responsibility to administer the estate upon death. This usually includes probating the will, paying debts and distributing property to the persons selected. You can also direct through your will that the executor not be required to be bonded.
Guardian: If you are a parent of a child under age 18, you will name a guardian, which is the person who will raise your child. A guardian may also have control of any property which your child may receive. However, if you do not want the child to have control of his/her property at age 18, the property should be placed in trust for the benefit of the child, as described below.
Trustee: Property may be given to your child in trust, allowing a trustee to decide how the property can best be used for the health, education and welfare of the child. A provision will also be made that the child should receive the balance of the property at the age you deem appropriate. Trustees should be chosen on the basis of his/her money management skills.
Funeral/Burial Instructions: If you have specific desires, (i.e. cremation, burial, specific cemetery) state them in the will. If you make no decisions regarding these matters, the executor will make the decision.
Part of establishing an estate plan is also determining whether it is appropriate for you to have a living will, a durable power of attorney for health care, and/or a durable power of attorney for financial matters. All of these documents are simple planning tools that allow you to direct what happens at critical times in your life.