Would you like to be buried in your favorite car? Or perhaps you’d prefer to be preserved as a mummy sitting upright and kept on display at your alma mater? And how would you like your assets to be dispersed? Would you like to leave your life’s fortune to a precious pooch or to have it divvied up and doled out to strangers? Or perhaps after you’ve passed, you’d like to have a single red rose delivered daily to your surviving spouse, the way Jack Benny did? All these odd will requests and many others have been stipulated in wills at one time or another.
Whether your post-mortem wishes are highly exotic or purely pedestrian, they aren’t likely to happen at all unless you take proactive steps to ensure that they do – and that requires filing a will and keeping it updated. Making a will is an important part of the financial planning process.
“Dying intestate” is the common term for dying without a will. When that happens, decisions about the disposition of your assets default to the applicable state law, which may or may not be in accordance with your preferences. Dying intestate might also result in a dispute among potential your heirs or a delay in assets being dispersed to your heirs. The CCH Financial Planning Toolkit adds some important considerations:
“The bad thing about dying intestate (other than dying, of course) is that a state’s default rules may not go far enough to meet a deceased’s distribution wishes. For example, although a surviving spouse is generally first in line to inherit, the spouse may end up having to share the estate with other relatives of the deceased. Also, if a person is not on the list of potential heirs, then he or she is out of luck (which may result in excluding a “life partner,” lifelong friend, or favorite charity). The final indignity is that, if there are no relatives identified during probate, the state takes the assets the deceased spent a lifetime acquiring.”
You can learn what is likely to happen to your assets should you die without a will by checking this map of intestate succession laws for all 50 states.
It’s important to note that a will is not the be all and end all for ensuring the dispersal of your assets according to your wishes. The distribution of many of your financial assets – such as life insurance policies or 401K and IRA accounts – would be governed by who you named as a beneficiary. It’s extremely important for you to keep your beneficiaries up to date because life circumstances change. You may or may not be pleased if your ex-spouse inherits your life insurance policy, but if you haven’t changed the designated beneficiary, that could happen.