When the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin died last week at the age of 76, she left an extensive catalog of music for the world to enjoy for years to come. What she didn’t leave was a will, which means her family — with the help of lawyers — will now go through the courts to figure out how her assets will be distributed.
The “Respect” singer isn’t the only celebrity to die without a will. Prince died in his Paisley Park compound in 2016 and it took a year for a Minnesota probate judge to decide on the beneficiaries of his estimated $200 million estate. This was swift compared to the case of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. More than 30 years passed before a final decision was made on who had control of his assets worth $80 million.
It’s not just celebrities who die without a will in place. Research — and there’s been a fair amount — typically finds that more than half of adults in the U.S. don’t have wills. There are all kinds of reasons for this, from thinking you don’t need one to believing the process is costly and time consuming. If kids are involved there’s the sometimes complicated question of who gets guardianship of them, and for some people, the idea of sitting down and facing their mortality can be … hard.
Here are a few questions you may have about the process of creating a will and some tips for ticking it off of your to-do list.
Before we get started, what is a will?
Seems obvious, but it’s a legal document that outlines what you want to happen to your worldly possessions after your death. It can include everything from your house and car to personal items such as jewelry or irreplaceable photographs.
OK, so how do I get started?
The back of an envelope isn’t an official document. Open a Word document and start writing. It doesn’t have to be full of legalese — a lawyer can help you with that. Getting your initial thoughts down on paper will make the decision-making process easier.
You mentioned a lawyer. How can I make the most of our time drafting my will?
Billable hours can fly by, so before you pay a lawyer to help plan your estate, get organized. Write out all your assets, your debts, and any hairy family-related questions ahead of time. Make sure you decide who gets your possessions before the clock starts ticking.
Is using a lawyer the only option?
If you want a basic will, there are other options available online at various price points. Most do-it-yourself services have step-by-step guides that help you complete the will document template. As with all things online, check that you’re dealing with a legitimate company, and if in doubt, pay a lawyer to review your document and make sure it meets the legal requirements for your state.
Once I’ve completed my will, then what?
Make sure that the original, signed copy of your will is easily accessible. Some people leave it in a bank safety deposit box or a safe at home. Wherever you decide to put it, let the executor of your estate know so they can find it and start the process of enacting your wishes after your death.
Wait, you mentioned an executor. What do they do?
The executor is the person you select to carry out the instructions in your will. It could be a friend, spouse or other trusted person.
So I’ve made my will, have an executor and everything’s in place. Do I need to update my will at any point?
Estate planners suggest revisiting your will any time you have a major life event such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child or if a beneficiary dies.
Still have questions? Leave a comment below and we’ll try to get some answers for you.
If you’re a member of your local public radio station, we thank you — because your support helps those stations keep programs like Marketplace on the air. But for Marketplace to continue to grow, we need additional investment from those who care most about what we do: superfans like you.
Your donation — as little as $5 — helps us create more content that matters to you and your community, and to reach more people where they are – whether that’s radio, podcasts or online.
When you contribute directly to Marketplace, you become a partner in that mission: someone who understands that when we all get smarter, everybody wins.