Do I need a will?

Here are a few things to consider when deciding if you need a will.

Who are your heirs?

The laws of every state say who will inherit from you if you die without a will. If the people you want to leave your assets to are the same people as the law says, then you might not need a will. So, lets look at who your heirs are under Minnesota and Wisconsin law:

If you are married with no children, your spouse will inherit your entire estate.

If you are married with children only of you and your spouse, your spouse will inherit your entire estate, and your children will inherit from your spouse after his or her death.

If you are married and have children from other relationships, your spouse will inherit a portion of your estate, and the rest will pass to your children.

If you are not married, even if you are in a committed relationship, and have children, your children will inherit your entire estate.

Note that “children” does not include step-children unless they are legally adopted. The law only includes your biological and adopted children.

If you are not married, even if you are in a committed relationship, and have no children, your estate will pass to your “heirs at law.” This basically means it will go down your family tree until it finds somewhere to stop. If your parents are living, it will go to your parents. If not, then to your siblings. If none, then to your nieces and nephews. If none, then to your grandparents. If they are no longer living, then to your aunts and uncles. And so on and so forth.

If you have no blood relatives (relatives by marriage will not inherit from you) the state will inherit your property.

Last Will and Testament

A few important things to note about this:

If you want to pass property to someone who is not a blood relative or your spouse, you will need a will. For example: friends, charity, or your spouse’s family.

Likewise, if you want to leave property to your partner and you are not legally married, then you need a will. For unmarried couples it’s also especially important to do a comprehensive review of assets to make sure that non-probate assets will pass in a way that coordinates with the will.

If you are married and have children from another relationship, you should have a will. This is a scenario where additional estate planning tools, such as trusts, can be especially important.

If you want to “skip” someone in the family tree, or not leave money in equal shares to your heirs, you will need a will. For example: You want to leave property to your nieces and nephews directly instead of your parents or siblings; or you want to leave more money to one sibling

Do you have children?

If you have young children, you can name a guardian for them in your will. A guardian is the person who will care for your children if you cannot. If you do not name a guardian, the court will decide on one.

Another important estate planning tool is a testamentary trust. This kind of trust would set aside money aside for your children if you and  your spouse both die before they reach the age at which you’d like them to inherit from you. What’s important about this is that YOU get to decide WHEN they inherit – you can extend it into young adulthood (or even later).

For more information, see Estate Planning for Parents.


What should happen if your spouse or children die first?

Wills can name contingent (backup) heirs. For example, if you are married but have no children, you might want to make a will leaving money to someone if your spouse were to predecease you. Without this, we go back to the progression outlined above. To your parents, then siblings, then nieces or nephews, then grandparents, and so on.

Most spouses decide to leave half of their assets to the husband’s family, and half to the wife’s family. This is another option that is not provided for by the law. By default, assets will pass to the side of the family of the spouse who died second.


Other Considerations

There are other things you can do with a will besides pass on property.

You can appoint a Personal Representative (also known as an Executor).

You can say how you would like taxes, debts, or expenses of your estate to be allocated amongst your heirs or assets.

You can make a list of personal property (for example, jewelry or family heirlooms) that you want to leave to people who are not named in the will.

This information is for educational purposes only. It is based on Minnesota and Wisconsin law and may not be true in other states. See the website Terms of Use.