Did you know that August is “National Make-A-Will Month?” If you have already prepared your will, congratulations! You have taken the first step in the estate planning process. Also, you are in the minority according to Caring.com’s 2022 Wills and Estate Planning Study, which found only 33% of Americans have created their will. Where I see the most significant gaps in people’s knowledge is that they don’t understand what a will does not do. With this in mind, let’s look at three things that having a will —WILL NOT— do for you and your loved ones regarding estate planning.
Here are a few examples of what a will does not do.
- As a parent, your most important role in life is to protect your children now and in the future. Most people think naming a guardian for their children in their will is sufficient. What they don’t realize is that your will only comes into effect when you die. By naming guardians for your minor children in your will, that ONLY works to name a guardian if you are dead. A will is not effective to name guardians if you are temporarily unavailable because you were in an accident or are hospitalized, and it leaves your children vulnerable to being taken into child services and the care of strangers if something happens to you. Unfortunately, this gap may exist in your estate plan even if you’ve worked with another lawyer to create your will. Why? Because many lawyers have not been trained on what’s necessary to ensure the well-being and care of minor children if your children need care and you are alive but unable to look after your children. That is why we offer a comprehensive system we call our Children’s Protection Plan, included with every estate plan we prepare for families with children.
- Having a will, does not keep your assets or your loved ones out of court. In fact, your will is the one document that tells the judge what you want and will become a public record in the probate process, where your will takes center stage. Unbeknownst to most people, a will only allows you to provide for the distribution of certain types of assets—typically, a will only covers assets owned solely in your name. Many other types of assets are not covered or affected by your will at all. I commonly see people who think that “all” of their assets have been planned for under their will, only to be (unpleasantly) surprised to find out this is not the case and that their planning is full of gaps.
- A will does not leave you or your loved ones in charge. A will leaves the local probate judge in charge. Court rules will dictate the process by which your assets will be managed, how creditors are notified, the timing of when all debts and claims are settled and paid (including your final income taxes), and finally, hopefully no more than 9 months later (but it can be longer) how your remaining assets are distributed.
As you can see here, having a will in place is a small but important first step in your estate plan. What is even more important is knowing what a will does and does not do as it has some gaps. But that doesn’t mean you should go without one. Without a will, you would have no say in who inherits your assets when you die, and everything you own is left up to the laws in the state where you are a legal resident. But even worse, your loved ones that survive will be the ones who must clean up the mess you’ve left behind. You should see your will as an important first step in the estate planning process—one that works best when integrated with a variety of other legal vehicles, such as trusts, powers of attorney, and advanced healthcare directives.