Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Even if you're unmarried and without dependents, you should still have a will.

I'm unmarried and childless, so I didn't see the point in having a will until last year, when my mom planted the idea. Even now—like many of my peers—I am procrastinating. According to a recent survey from Caring.com, 78% of millennials don't have a will. "People don't want to talk about death," says Byrke Sestok, a certified financial planner with Rightirement Wealth Partners in White Plains, N.Y. But if you die without a will, he says, the consequences for your loved ones can be disastrous.

The whole package. A will spells out how you want your assets distributed after your death, and it names an executor to handle these transfers. Otherwise, you will die intestate, meaning your state decides how to distribute your property and funds, generally starting with your parents if you're childless (unless an account, such as your bank account, designates a beneficiary or is held jointly). Even if you want to leave everything to your parents, a will streamlines the process, says Jeana Salman, a CFP in Atlanta.

Two other documents may be even more important than a will for single, healthy millennials. The first is a durable power of attorney, which names the person who can manage financial matters on your behalf if you are unable to (say, because you've become incapacitated or you're simply unavailable because you're traveling abroad). The second is an advance medical directive, which defines your end-of-life wishes concerning life support, comfort measures and more. You'll also name a person to carry out those decisions on your behalf, either within the medical directive or in a separate document.

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If you don't specify your wishes or designate a health care agent and you fall into a persistent vegetative state, you will likely be kept alive artificially by default, says Steven Schindler, a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Seattle. You can expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a basic estate package, depending on where you live, the complexity of your estate and the experience of your attorney. On your own, you can designate beneficiaries for your bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.

Another aspect of estate planning that millennials need to worry about is maybe the scariest one of all: What happens to your digital assets—personal photos, gossipy messages and embarrassing e-mails—when you die? Facebook defaults to memorializing your account (you can appoint a "legacy contact" or choose to have it deleted instead). Google lets you choose up to 10 trusted contacts who may download data from your Gmail, photos and more if you become inactive for a specified amount of time. Most states have enacted or introduced laws that govern how an executor can access digital assets, but a lawyer can help you tailor a plan to legally authorize someone to handle them.

Getting started. Think about the person (or people) you want to appoint as your executor and to have power of attorney for both health and finances. The best person to make financial or medical decisions on your behalf—and delve into your private matters—may not be the one you feel closest to.

You can find an estate planning lawyer through your local bar association or the directory on your local Estate Planning Council's website (find links at www.naepc.org). Before hiring a lawyer, check to see whether your employee benefits include free estate planning. If not, a low-cost online tool such as LegalZoom, where a bundle of the basic documents and one year of lawyer's advice costs $149, may be a tempting way to save cash. But these services won't always capture the nuances of your situation or adapt to evolving laws.

As for me, I have an appointment with an estate-planning lawyer, and I chose trusted contacts for my Facebook and e-mail accounts as I wrote this story. Yes, it felt a bit morbid, but it's a relief to know that people I trust are in charge of my legacy.

Miriam Cross
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Miriam lived in Toronto, Canada, before joining Kiplinger's Personal Finance in November 2012. Prior to that, she freelanced as a fact-checker for several Canadian publications, including Reader's Digest Canada, Style at Home and Air Canada's enRoute. She received a BA from the University of Toronto with a major in English literature and completed a certificate in Magazine and Web Publishing at Ryerson University.