I've been asked on a number of occasions how important it is to have a will, a particularly common question among clients who are on the younger side and are budget conscious. Well, the answer is that it depends. If you don't have any children and don't have many assets, maybe not. Let's talk about a few considerations, though.
One of the things you should think about is whether your assets pass directly to your intended recipients without the need for a will. Life insurance policies and retirement accounts usually fall in this category. These assets pass directly to whoever you designate as the beneficiaries, regardless of whether you have a will. You can also take title to a house with someone else (e.g., your spouse) in a way such that if you die, your interest essentially automatically passes to the other owner. Some joint bank accounts work similarly, where if you die, your interest in the account automatically passes to the other owner. But this doesn't mean that all houses and all bank accounts automatically pass this way - you have to have them set up to do so.
Ohio, as I believe is the case with every state, has a statute that provides a default set of rules for who your "stuff" goes to if you die. In Ohio, the default rules basically provide that your stuff goes to your spouse and/or children, or to other family members if you don't have a spouse or children. I find that most clients want to deviate from the default rules at least slightly, though, in which case you'd need to have a properly drafted will setting forth how you want your "stuff" distributed. This can be particularly important when you have multiple children and want to leave them with specific gifts that have special meaning to each. I know that I want my prized Eric Clapton signature Fender guitar to go to my son when I die, for example, so I'd put that specifically in my will. A well-drafted will can help avoid fights over belongings and save a lot of headache for your survivors.
If you have children who are still young, another thing to consider is who will take care of them if you're no longer able to do so. Through a will and other estate planning documents you can specify who you want to be their guardian if you die or become incapacitated, which can be especially important if you are a single parent with sole custody.
These are just some basic things to consider. I would say that given the relatively low cost of having a will drafted, it's probably worth it in most situations, but as with most legal matters it's something that I'd recommend discussing with an attorney before making a decision.
Should you use one of the will "kits" you can buy online and elsewhere? I probably wouldn't. You might save a little money, but there's really no substitute for having competent legal counsel help you put together a plan that does exactly what you want it to do, one that you can be confident will work when it's needed. Bear in mind that it's not just the format of the document that matters but also how it is executed. There's a story I've heard where a "form" will was used, but the primary beneficiary named in the will signed as one of the witnesses, which meant that she couldn't inherit under the will, completely defeating the point of the will! That's an extreme, of course, but the point is that the cost to have an attorney help you really isn't all that much, particularly when compared to what can be at stake.
Lastly, I should mention that wills are only one part of good estate planning. When I draft a will for a client, I usually also assist the client with drafting a living will and healthcare power of attorney, which can save a lot of headaches if you become incapacitated and can't make medical or other decisions for yourself. And for clients with fairly sizable estates, there are trust options that can provide immense flexibility, avoid probate altogether, and minimize taxes - but that gets into some more complex areas of estate planning that are beyond the scope of this post.
Please remember that these posts are not intended to be legal advice and should not be relied on as such. If you have questions about wills, estate planning, or other legal matters, you should discuss your situation with an experienced attorney licensed to practice in your geographic area.
Ben Bauer is a Cincinnati-based attorney who writes about things in law and life that he finds interesting.