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What is a Will, and Why Do You Need One?

Learn the steps to create a will, ensuring it's legally executed and can be updated when needed. Plan ahead, especially if your loved one has cognitive decline.

Reviewed by
Kate Grayson

What is a Will?

A will is a legal document that outlines how an individual’s assets will be distributed after their death. Assets can include real estate, retirement accounts, bank accounts, and physical property. Collectively, these assets are referred to as an “estate.”

It’s a common misconception that only wealthy people need wills. In caring.com’s 2022 Wills and Estate Planning Study, they learned that only 33% of Americans have a will or living trust. “When asked why they don’t have a will, 1 out of 3 respondents believes they don’t have enough assets to leave behind.” But in reality, wills are important for everybody. As AARP shares, “even if your loved one has a small estate, he may want to create a will to ensure that his money and property are distributed according to his wishes. Otherwise, if he dies without a valid will, the state will divvy up his assets in accordance with local laws.”

Why Do You Need a Will?

If your care recipient passes away without a will, they will lose the right to dictate how their assets will be distributed. Without a will, their estate will be distributed according to their state laws, not according to their own wishes.

With a will in place, your care recipient will be able to dictate the terms of their estate’s distribution. They can choose who will inherit what assets (called the “beneficiaries”), and who is responsible for managing the estate (called the “executor”).

What to Do if You Loved One has Cognitive Decline or Memory Loss

If your care recipient has cognitive decline, try and get their estate documents in order before the condition progresses. The National Institute on Aging advises that advance directives and estate documents “must be created while the person with Alzheimer's or a related dementia has “legal capacity" to make decisions on their own, meaning they can still understand the decisions and what they might mean.” This is intended to protect the individual with dementia from elder abuse, and ensure that all decisions are being made according to their wishes. 

What is a Beneficiary?

In their will, your care recipient can dictate their beneficiaries and terms of inheritance. As trust & will explains, “a beneficiary is anyone you name in your Estate Plan who will ultimately benefit from your estate. The benefits could be in the form of money or anything else you pass down. Beneficiaries are an important part of your plan, as they give purpose and guidance for what you’re leaving behind.”

When creating their will, an individual can have as many or few beneficiaries as they like. Assets can also be divided evenly, or specific items can be left to specific beneficiaries. Some scenarios might include: 

  • Assets are left to only one beneficiary, like a spouse
  • Assets are distributed equally amongst multiple beneficiaries, like children
  • Assets are individually given to specific beneficiaries. For example, maybe a grandparent leaves their watch to one grandchild, and their wedding ring to another.

They will want to have a contingent beneficiary, in addition to their primary beneficiary. According to trust & will, a primary beneficiary is the “person or organization named as the first one to receive the death benefits from an asset.” A contingent beneficiary, on the other hand, “is named as the “second in line” to receive benefits. If the primary beneficiary should predecease the owner (who wrote the Will or held the policy), all proceeds would automatically go to any named contingent beneficiary.”

What is an Executor?

When they’re creating their will, your loved one will also need to designate an “executor,” who is responsible for managing the estate on their behalf. AARP explains that an executor is “a personal representative who will carry out his wishes after his death. This person will pay taxes, pay money due to creditors and distribute the assets.” 

If your loved one does not have a will or designate an executor, the state will choose who is responsible for managing their estate. Every state has its own laws, but this is generally the legal next of kin, such as a spouse, sibling, or adult child. Depending on family dynamics, this can become a very challenging situation, making it especially important for people to create a will and choose the appropriate executor.

How to Prepare a Will

If your care recipient does not have a will, it is important that they create one as soon as possible. If they have the available resources, it’s always wise to work with an estate attorney to create a will. However, as with other estate documents, there are many free or affordable online services that they can use. The most important thing is that they create a will, and get it legally executed according to their state’s laws. 

As circumstances change, people’s estate wishes might evolve. That is perfectly natural. Your care recipient will always be able to update their will through a “codicil” (a supplementary legal document which outlines amendments to a will), or by creating a new will. They can do this as long as they remain mentally competent.

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