We’re all going to die. I don’t mean that in a Chicken Little sort of way. I mean that in a stating-the-obvious sort of way. The jury is still out as to what happens to us after we die, but one thing that is fairly certain is that once you die you have little say over what happens to your property, to whom you give your property, and any other instructions you’d like to make from “beyond the grave.” Of course, you can have a say if you properly draft and execute a will.
Wills are cheap and easy to create. I even saw a commercial on TV where a famous lawyer advertised will drafting services online for less than $100. Even still, there are few people out there who have a will. Statistics vary, but one study shows that 55% of adult Americans do not have will.
If that’s the case, it seems like it’s not that big of a deal to die without a will, right?
Not exactly. When someone dies without a will, the person is said to have died intestate. For those keeping score at home, that means “without a will.” When you die intestate, your property (which becomes your estate’s property, since you’re dead and all) is distributed using your state’s intestacy statute. Well, we all know what intestate means, but what exactly does statute mean? A statute is a law created by the legislature, or law-making body of the government (think, Congress). So somewhere in the California Code (Probate Code sections 6400, et seq. to be exact) there is a statute (remember, that just means “law”) that says where a person’s property goes if he or she dies intestate. Well, that then suggests that if you don’t have a will when you die, then the legislature decides who gets your property.
Who cares? I don’t even own anything!
The cool thing about a will is that it doesn’t “speak” until you die. So it can dispose of property that you don’t even own yet. You don’t have anything now, but what if you start accumulating property? Or what if you are later the beneficiary of someone else’s estate? Or you marry someone else who has some property? Just as importantly, you can “cut” people out of any share of your estate if you so decide.
Let me use an example to illustrate an extreme circumstance where a will would certainly clarify any ambiguity. Hypothetically, let’s assume Harry is in a relationship with Wendy. Harry and Wendy have a child, Cheryl. Unfortunately, Harry and Wendy start having problems and decide to split up. They were never married. Harry moves on, and although he remains a loving father to Cheryl, he decides to marry his new girlfriend Greta. Greta has two children from her previous marriage. As tragedy would have it, Harry chokes on a pretzel and dies. Harry never got around to drafting a will. Under California’s intestacy statute, all of Harry’s community property and one-half of his separate property go to his surviving spouse, Greta. When Greta dies, all of her property (including the property she acquired from Harry’s estate) is now disposed of through her will, or if there is no will, by the intestacy statute. In other words, unless Greta provides for Cheryl through her own will, Cheryl will have to somehow intervene in order to assert her rights, if any, to take some of her father’s property. However, if Harry had a will providing for Cheryl, then disaster could be averted… or, at least Harry’s true wishes would be clear.
So, what’s the point? I still don’t have any more property than when this post began.
The point is that peoples’ living situations are changing constantly. These days, a Thanksgiving feast involving ex-spouses, step-children, biological children, half-siblings, etc., are commonplace. Divorces are par for the course. People are living longer and dying with considerable amounts of property. Property is being re-characterized all the time. Everyone should take the time to at least consider drafting a will.