We've all been told that if we do nothing else to take care of our "legal affairs," we should write a will. That's pretty good advice. If you don't make a will before your death, state law will determine who gets your property (and it may well not be whom you would have chosen), and a judge may decide who will raise your children. In your will, you can make these decisions yourself.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? And it really is. If all you need is a basic will, you can confidently use a good self-help book or software to make a legally binding will that:

  • leaves your property to the people and organizations you choose
  • names someone to care for your minor children if you can't
  • names someone to manage property you leave to minor children (yours or someone else's), and
  • names your executor, the person with authority to make sure that the terms of your will are carried out.

When Simple Is Enough

By and large, if you are under age 50 and don't expect to have an estate large enough to be subject to estate tax, you can probably get by with only a basic will. As you grow older and acquire more property, you may want to engage in more sophisticated planning.

Take a common situation, where a husband and wife want to leave their property to each other, or, if they die together, to their children in equal shares. There's no reason to involve a costly expert for such direct and uncomplicated desires.

Here are a few other examples of real-life situations where a basic will is all that's needed.

  • Linda and Jerome, in their 30s, own a home, two cars and some savings. Their net worth totals $90,000. They have one child, Mark, age 12. Each prepares a will leaving all his or her property to the other. If they die at the same time, Mark is to receive all their property. Linda and Jerome agree that Linda's brother will care for Mark and manage the property until Mark turns 18.
  • Sam, a widower with three grown children, owns property with a net worth of $260,000. He creates a will leaving all his property equally to the children. He specifies that if any child dies before him, that child's share is to be divided equally between the surviving children.
  • Barbara is a single mother with two teenage children. Though she's not on great terms with her ex-husband, she admits that he tries to be a decent father and pays child support more or less on time. Barbara's will leaves all her property equally to her children. Because she does not want her ex-husband managing money left to her children if she dies, she uses her will to appoint her sister Debbie to manage each child's property until that child turns 18.

What about Probate?

If you leave anything more than a small amount of property through a will, probate court proceedings will probably be necessary after your death. Although it varies from state to state, probate can take six months or a year, and eat up 3% to 5% of your estate in lawyers' and court fees. And your beneficiaries get nothing until probate is complete.

In probate, the executor files the will of a deceased person in court, and gathers the deceased's property. After debts and taxes are paid, what's left is distributed as the will directs. The good news is that if you need only a basic will, you have little reason to concern yourself now with probate. If you're relatively young and healthy, and you don't have piles of money, your real concern is to make legal arrangements for the statistically unlikely event that you will die suddenly and unexpectedly. Accepting the slight risk that your assets might have to go through probate is, for most younger people, preferable to creating complex and costly estate plans many years before they're likely to produce any benefits.

When a Basic Will Is Enough
  • You don't expect to owe estate tax at your death.
  • You're under age 50.
  • You're in pretty good health.
When You Need More
  • You expect to owe estate tax when you die or when your spouse does.
  • You want to control what happens to property after your death -- for example, you want to leave some property in trust for your child, and have it go to your grandchildren when your child dies.
  • A child has a disability or other special need that you wish to address in your estate plan.
  • You have children from a prior marriage and you fear conflict between them and your current spouse.
  • You think someone might contest your will, claiming you were not mentally competent when writing it, or the will was procured by fraud or duress. (Will contests are quite rare, and it's even more rare that they succeed.)