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Wills and living wills: What you need to know

The coronavirus pandemic has brought death into focus for many young people who otherwise wouldn’t have given their own mortality and final wishes much thought.

COVID-19 has claimed the lives of over hundreds of thousands of people with many of the deaths occurring in the U.S. The virus’s inscrutable symptoms and long-lasting complications have prompted 1 in 5 Gen Z and millennials to pen wills, according to new data from LegalZoom.

Among those who’ve been personally impacted by the virus, more than half of 18-39-year-olds cite COVID fears as the reason for creating a will.

Pre-pandemic, contemplation on how others should be instructed to carry out your final wishes was often spurred by big life events like marriage, property ownership, or the birth of a child, Chas Rampenthal, attorney and spokesperson for LegalZoom shared with Cashay.

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted 1 in 5 Gen Z and millennials to pen wills, according to new data from LegalZoom. (Photo: Getty)
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted 1 in 5 Gen Z and millennials to pen wills, according to new data from LegalZoom. (Photo: Getty)

Rampenthal acknowledged there’s no silver lining to the crisis, but “if people are motivated and if this is the thing that motivates them, I’m glad that they’re getting it done,” he said. “But they needed to get it done whether there was a pandemic or not.”

Cashay breaks down the complicated legalese and demystifies the reasons and rationale for tying up your loose ends before your inevitable departure.

What is a will?

Simply put, a will, or last will and testament, is a legal document that outlines where you want your money and assets to go after your death. If you’re a property owner or parent of a child under 18, your will would include provisions for who would take ownership of your home and assume guardianship of your child.

But for someone who is younger or just not interested in pursuing conventional milestones of adulthood like marriage or parenthood, your legacy and footprint are still in need of direction after your passing.

Assets don’t necessarily have to be of monetary value or in a physical state, either. A will can be used to designate a caretaker for your pets or gifting someone a memento they’ve always admired.

A last will and testament is a legal document that outlines where you want your money and assets to go after your death. (Photo: Getty)
A last will and testament is a legal document that outlines where you want your money and assets to go after your death. (Photo: Getty)

One topic that’s been included in more wills now is the continuation of social media accounts after an account holders’ death. Rampenthal explained that someone from an older generation might have physical assets, but a younger person typically has digital assets that deserve the same amount of consideration.

More people are giving foresight into deciding whether to convert their Facebook page into a memorial account or giving someone permission to deactivate their LinkedIn account.

When someone dies without a will, carrying out someone’s final wishes — like a small cremation versus religious ceremony with burial — is a lot more complicated and tangled. Rather than family or close friends making arrangements, judges and state officials become the decision-makers.

Wills can also be changed or amended as your life changes. So if you’ve had more children or your relationship status has changed from married to divorced, you can update the information accordingly.

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How is a will different from a living will?

A last will and testament outlines your wishes after you’ve passed away. A living will— sometimes known as an advanced directive— is the legal document use when someone is in a “persistent vegetative state,” according to the law.

This means that in the event of a tragic accident or illness, directives from a living will about how a patient with non-existent brain function should be medically treated would be invoked.

Isn’t a will only for rich people?

False. Rampenthal addressed the misnomer and attributed some of the blame on the legal profession for “not [doing] a great job of naming these things properly.”

Wills live under the legal specialty umbrella of trust and estate planning, and it’s the word estate that generally throws people and causes them to believe the need for a will doesn’t apply to them.

“People are like, ‘Well, I'm not rich, so I don’t have an estate,’ and ‘I know what an estate sale is, it's a yard sale only for the fancy places where people have money,’” Rampenthal said. “People connote the concept of an estate with people who are wealthy, and they don't think that they're wealthy so they don't believe that they have any issue.”

This stands to reason why more than half of Americans don’t have wills.

More than half of Americans don't have wills and the confusion might stem from people's concept of an estate and estate planning. (Photo: Getty)
More than half of Americans don't have wills and the confusion might stem from people's concept of an estate and estate planning. (Photo: Getty)

Independent of wealth, everyone has some sort of opinion on how they would like to be memorialized after their passing.

How do I get one made?

It’s not as complicated as it sounds and the internet has made it possible to not engage the services of an expensive attorney who will likely charge by the hour.

Sites like Quicken, Fabric, Willing, and LegalZoom all provide automated platforms for specific planning services and you’ll know the total amount upfront.

To ensure the process goes smoothly, Rampenthal encouraged people to put in a little bit of prep work. Beginning with an “inventory of what you have and what you owe,” you’ll then need to deliberate and decide what you will give to those you leave behind, known as your beneficiaries.

Once you’ve given thought to your plans, ask someone you trust to administer your will. This person’s known as an executor and should be thought of as someone you’re deputizing to oversee the distribution of your possessions.

Understandably, the process of writing a will doesn’t evoke feelings of happiness. But preparing a document to ensure your most cherished worldly possessions go to the right homes and your life is memorialized in a way you see fit doesn’t have to be tangled or arduous.

“I think the problem is that often lawyers make it a little highbrow and make it more difficult for people to understand,” Rampenthal said.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. She can be reached at stephanie.asymkos@yahoofinance.com. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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