Why (And Why You May Not) Need a Will

Attorney, distinguished law professor

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Most of us probably recognize the phrase “For Whom the Bell Tolls” as the title of Ernest Hemingway’s popular novel set in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. But the phrase originated from a meditation written by John Donne in 1624, specifically the use of the funeral bell.

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As the bell tolled marking someone’s death, Donne wrote, “[S]end not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The phrase is often used to remind us that we all will face death someday, but no one ever knows when that day will be.

Though it may sound a bit dreary to remark upon when the bell will toll for thee, it can be helpful to note the importance of having a last will and testament before said bell tolls.

Below, we’ve offered over a dozen reasons why it is important to have a will and several reasons why you may not need (or want) a will. Curious to find out if a will is important for you? Read on.

Why Do People Get Wills?

People have wills for different reasons. Some are good reasons, and some are not.

For most folks who have a simple estate like a home, a car, some personal property, a pension or retirement savings, some investments, and some traditional bank accounts, a will can cover what they want to do with their property when they die.

Often, there is an immediate family willing to amicably divide the decedent’s property among themselves, and the will of the decedent is never even called into question. 

In most cases, people have a will for two primary reasons: first, to designate someone to administer their estate when they die and secondly, to distribute some specific items of property to named beneficiaries.

Including specific gifts to specific people in a will is often an expression of fondness or sentimentality as much as it is a statement of legal intent for the disposition of property. Nevertheless, these are two good reasons to have a will.

By contrast, many people can have wills for the wrong reasons. The most common wrong reason to have a will is that you think you need one when you really don’t. There may be other less expensive and less time-consuming resources available to help you with your property more efficiently than a will can.  

You Might Need a Will If...

Reason 1: You want to name an executor to your estate

When you die, it doesn’t matter if you have a very large estate or a few possessions you want to give away. You still need someone to manage the tasks required to settle your estate. You may need an executor to:

  • Notify creditors
  • Pay your outstanding bills
  • Transfer titles when appropriate
  • Pay for funeral expenses from your estate
  • Pay necessary taxes
  • File your will for probate
  • Distribute property according to your will

 It is important that you have someone you trust to handle all of your affairs, particularly if you have disposed of property in your will in a way that some members of your family may disagree with or not follow through on.

If you do not have a will to appoint an executor to your estate, the court will appoint a personal representative for you. However, it is best to choose the executor you want.

Reason 2: You want to name a guardian for your minor children

If you have underage children who will have no legal guardian should something unfortunate happen to you, you may need a will to designate the person who you would want to take legal custody of your offspring. 

If you do not indicate your preference in your will, the court must decide who will serve as your child’s legal guardian. There may be a time period during which your child is placed with foster parents that are unknown to you and your children, or perhaps a family member that you don’t trust or your child is not comfortable with. 

It is important also to note that the preference you state in your will may not be the final decision. The court will act in the best interest of the child, but your expression of your wishes for a legal guardian of your child will carry much weight in the eyes of the court when deciding legal custody.

Reason 3: You want to name specific beneficiaries to receive certain property

Everyone has those few items of personal property that hold special meaning for you and another person—perhaps a book you always read to your child, a symbolic item of value between you and your best friend, or a tool from the garage that your neighbor always borrowed and would appreciate having to remember you by.

Without a will expressing your intent that these gifts be distributed in this manner, these items can go to someone who will not understand or catch the sentimental value of these pieces. 

Perhaps you also have practical motives for wanting someone specific to receive your property. For example, you want your great-great-grandfather’s watch, which has been passed down through the generations, to go to your son, and then to his son, and so on.

Without a will expressly noting to give that watch specifically to your son, you may not be able to continue this family tradition.  

Whatever your motives may be, you may need a will to make sure your property goes to the people you want to have it.

If you want to know more about this process, read our guide on how naming beneficiaries to your estate works.

Reason 4: You want your family-owned business to remain in your family

You may have a family business or any other business interest that not all of your children are interested in running. If you do not have a will, your interest in the business may be distributed equally among your children, including those who may want to sell their interests to others outside of the family.

To avoid this, you may need a will to make sure your business interests are shared only with those who support your decision to keep the business within the family. 

Reason 5: You want to quell expectations of family members

We have all seen movies or read books where close family relationships are ruined because of bickering over who will receive a particular piece of property when someone dies.

You don’t need to go far to even think of another plotline where a loving and loyal caretaker watches an ungrateful, spoiled family member inherit a decedent’s fortune because they didn’t have a will, or when a child is simply disappointed (or downright angry) because of what they received (or did not receive) in the family trust. 

Having a will offers an opportunity to include the reasons why you disposed of your property the way you have in addition to some expression of your wishes. Often it may relieve some of the disappointment or resentment of family members if they understand that this is what you wanted, and why.

Reason 6: It incentivizes others to care for you

Disclosing to your beneficiaries that they are in your will may give those beneficiaries some incentive to provide for your well being and your care when care is needed. This may seem like a sad or disingenuous reason to have a will, but it doesn’t have to be viewed that way.

For example, your children from a previous marriage may have genuine love and concern for you, but knowing that they are to inherit your estate provides a sense of responsibility for them toward you.

In particular, it can help reiterate the love and care that you have provided to them during your life and appreciation for all that you plan to leave them when you pass on.

Without a will that provides details on leaving them a share of your estate, your children, who might otherwise willingly care for you, may assume that your new spouse and step-family who are to inherit your estate may be responsible for your care.

Providing for someone in a will can sometimes confirm the trust and responsibility that we owe to each other in times of need.

Reason 7: It expresses your appreciation for others

As mentioned above, having a will where you can name people individually helps to confirm and emphasize the connection you shared over time with them.

It also reminds them of your friendship, and also offers a gesture of appreciation for how each person enriched your life in some way.

Reason 8: It allows you to disinherit those whom you choose not to favor

Without a will, you may recognize that an heir for whom you do not hold much confidence in may be likely to inherit your property upon your death.

It can sound petty, but for example, perhaps you know that your child has a drug or gambling addiction and that inheriting your estate will be the worst thing for them. Or perhaps your spouse is incapacitated or is unable to administer their own finances, so you prefer to leave your estate to your spouse’s family, who you know will care for your spouse when you pass on. 

Let’s be honest—it is also possible that there’s a distant relative who we don’t particularly care for and don’t want them to inherit our property. We may need a will to ensure that they don’t.

Whatever our motives are, there are times when you may want to disinherit someone who may inherit your property if you do not have a will.

Reason 9: You want to minimize the delay of the probate process

Your will instructs the court exactly what you want to be done with your property. Without a will, the court must identify your legal heirs, determine rightful ownership interests, and proceed through a sluggish probate process before closing your estate.

The delay and expense of the normal intestacy process can be made stressful during an already stressful time without a will. By having one, you can alleviate some of the stress and anxiety of probate court for both the court and your family.

Reason 10: You want to donate to charitable causes

With a will, you can designate your favorite charity as a beneficiary.

If you have already created an “inter-vivos trust” to make charitable contributions, you may structure your will as a “pour-over” will, which means that you designate your charitable remainder trust as the beneficiary of the property designated in your will.

This property may even be used to fund a trust that you create in your will.

Reason 11: You want to lower your estate and gift taxes

Depending on the dispositions you instruct in your will, you may be able to lower the taxable value of your probate estate.

You should discuss the tax consequences of your will with your accountant or estate planner before writing up your will.

Reason 12: You want to modify your estate plan before you pass on

Just because you have executed your will does not mean that you are bound by the terms that you set out in it. Your will is executed during life, of course, but it does not operate until your death.

In the meantime, you are bound to experience many changes in your life that can affect your will—you will acquire different property, establish new friends, and grow your family. Thus, you are likely to want to change your will from time to time.

Wills are designed to be amended, revoked, and revived. You are free to execute as many versions of a will or codicil (a supplement to a valid will) as many times as you wish. 

Although there are many benefits to having a will, of course, there also are drawbacks. Here are just a few reasons why you may not need a will.

Decided you need a will? Read our guide on how to write a will—and legalize it or compare your will making options below.

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You Might Not Need a Will If...

Reason 1: All of your property is transferable through other instruments

If the only reason you are considering having a will is to give your property to beneficiaries, consider whether the property you want to transfer can be transferred through a non-probate instrument, like a trust.

Going through the probate process is an expense that your estate will absorb and can significantly delay the distribution of your property. If you have other instruments available, consider them before executing your will.

Reason 2: You want to dispose of property during life

As mentioned above, although you must execute your will during life, it does not become effective until your death.

If you want to divest yourself of property during life, your will is not the appropriate estate planning instrument for this goal.

Reason 3: You want the disposition of your estate to remain private

When your executor submits your will for probate, your will becomes a public document and can be viewed by anyone.

If you do not want third parties to be able to discover how you disposed of your property, consider using a trust, which you can keep private.

Reason 4: You want to dispose of your property according to the intestate distribution scheme in your state

If you know that you plan to devise or bequest your property to the same persons who are entitled to inherit your property through the applicable intestate distribution scheme in your state, you may not need a will to accomplish this goal.

However, the heirs to your inheritable estate may be difficult to predict since they cannot be identified until the time of your death. Your estate attorney or estate planner can explain how the intestate statute in your state operates.

'It Tolls for Thee'

If there is one absolute certainty in life, it is death. However, in life, you work hard to acquire the property you own and you plan for every foreseeable opportunity to provide for your family.

Although there are several reasons why you might not need to have a will, there is no reason not to have one if you need it. Talk to your estate planner today to discuss the value of having a will as part of your estate plan.

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