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Not Having a Last Will: The Big Mistake Most Americans Make

Not having a Last Will The big mistake most Americans make

Do you have a last will and testament?

Despite being told the importance of having a last will, more than half of all Americans die without one.

Making a will is not usually difficult, and it can cost less than many people spend on their cable bill for one month.

So why don’t more people get around to it?

Perhaps making a will means confronting our own mortality. Who wants to do that? When we’re young, we think we have lots of time. As we get older, our definition of “young” changes, and we still have time.

What’s the rush?

Putting off making a will is a lot like putting off going to the dentist. Waiting one more week won’t hurt anything. Waiting too long, however, can be a costly mistake.

What happens if I don’t have a last will?

If you don’t have a will when you die, state law determines who gets your money and other assets and determines who your personal representative is.

If you have minor children, the courts decide who will raise them.

You may think that it’s obvious who should inherit your money, or who should take care of your affairs.

However, as anyone who has picked up the pieces after a relative’s death can attest, it’s a whole lot easier if you have a legal will with everything spelled out.

Can I just have a very simple last will?

Absolutely. Your will could say who your personal representative is, and who gets everything you own. That’s a huge improvement over nothing!

Of course, your will should have a few legal points and verbiage to make it legal in your state. That’s okay – it’s not like you need to write it from scratch.

Your will does not need to specifically say who gets the silverware, the dog, or other possessions, as long as you are happy with your personal representative carrying out the provisions of your will for you.

Do I need a lawyer?

You need a lawyer to draw up your last will if:

  • You think your relatives and other people may dispute your will; for example, if you have feuding relatives already.
  • You have a business that you want to stay in operation after your death.
  • You have special concerns, such as a disabled child.
  • You have a child or other heir who you want to disinherit.
  • You may be subject to estate or inheritance tax.
  • You have a lot of assets or complicated finances, or for any reason you are concerned about what happens to your estate when you die.

I want to draw up my own last will. How can I do that?

Making a will yourself is easier than ever.

You can buy software to make a will, or you can fill out a form to create a will online. Make sure you use a tool specifically for your state. Follow all the instructions with the software or online tool.

Don’t try to just wing it by typing something up or writing it on scratch paper. Your will is more important than that.

Make sure you sign the will in front of two witnesses.

Where should I keep my last will?

People often store wills in what they consider to be a “safe place.” Unfortunately, safe places are often hard to find. Your will does no good if your survivors can’t find it. We’ve heard tales of relatives searching for weeks to find a will, even after a death that was not unexpected. Don’t put your family through that!

If you have a lawyer, you can keep a copy at his or her office. A safe deposit box or home safe would also work.

Wherever you put your will, tell your relatives and personal representative where it is.

While you’re at it, tell your personal representative they’ve been chosen. Asking permission beforehand is a nice touch. We know someone who was completely taken by surprise when she turned out to be the personal representative for a friend.

When should I update my last will?

You’d be surprised at how many people die with a will that predates major changes in their lives, such as divorce and remarriage.

Update your will when:

  • You get married or divorced, or you change major relationships.
  • You have or adopt a child.
  • Your assets, debts, or business affairs change materially.
  • Every year if possible. Realistically, don’t wait more than ten years to see if you need to update anything.

Do you and your parents or children talk openly about money and estate planning? Or is it a taboo subject in your family?

Photo credit: Dustin J McClure via photopin cc

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About Sally Herigstad

Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and personal finance columnist and author of Help! I Can't Pay My Bills, Surviving a Financial Crisis (St. Martin's Griffin). She writes regularly at,,, RedPlum, and MSN Money. She is an experienced speaker and a member of Toastmasters International. Follow Sally on Twitter.


A Will or better yet a Trust lets you assign you personal and Family heirlooms/collections whomever you choose and it lessens your or any time being held up in Court for probate.  Take steps NOW to Clear this obstacle for your family and friends.  Think carefully about the disposition of you worldly goods and who you think would like or desire any item.  House, Car, Medallions, Jewelry,  $ in your accounts -Virtually any assets are all items that need to be addressed.  Do it now for peace of mind, both yours and for those you may leave behind.  Also, when you create either of these documents you should declare who acts in your behalf for Health, Finance, and Disposition of your personal wishes.  

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