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Making a Will at Life's Different Stages

Barbara Diggs

Key Takeaways

Making a will isn't a one-time event: it should reflect your current stage of life.

Marriage, divorce, births and deaths are key life events that merit changes in your will.

Supplement your will with other forms of estate planning, such as a healthcare Power of Attorney or a Living Will.

Like many people, you might view making a will as a one-time event: you write it and then, thank goodness, it’s all over. But that’s far from the case. It’s important that your will accurately reflects your current stage of life. Marriage, divorce, births, deaths, or even a major purchase can all affect how and to whom you’d like your assets to be distributed. If your will doesn’t reflect these changes, then you risk your property going to beneficiaries you didn’t intend and leaving behind a confusing mess for your loved ones.

Consider the following 7 major life events and how your will might need to change at each stage.

Considerations for Making a Will in Your 20s

Your First Full-Time Job. When you’re young, single and new to the workforce, writing a will might be the last thing on your mind. But when you start earning steady money for the first time, you might also be accumulating assets that you care about and that you don’t want to end up just anywhere. For example, you might have a great car or a fine piece of jewelry that you’d want to leave to someone special in your life. At this stage you can make a very simple will that explains to whom you’d want your property to go.

Marriage. With marriage comes with new legal rights and responsibilities, including that you and your spouse become each other’s legal heirs. That means if you die intestate (without a will), your spouse is automatically entitled to a large share of your estate. So, why do you need a will? Well, perhaps you’d want a portion of your estate to go to another beneficiary, such as your children or a close relative. Or maybe you have a prior will that leaves most of your estate to your brother or even a former spouse. The bottom line is, both you and your spouse should make wills that reflect your new desires and circumstances. If you’re not certain of what kind of will to make after you marry, be sure to educate yourself about the various types of wills used by spouses.

Considerations for Making a Will in Your 30s and 40s

Births and Adoption. Having a new child often provides strong motivation for making a will. At this stage, your will should designate a legal guardian who will be responsible for raising your children if something happens to you and your spouse. You may also want to name a financial guardian (can be the same person as the legal guardian) who will be responsible for managing your children’s assets and inheritance until they are of legal age. And, of course, if desired, your will should also include your children as beneficiaries of your estate.

Obtaining a Major Asset. When you acquire a substantial asset, whether it’s a new home, a large inheritance, or a stock that’s shot up in value, making a will that states how to distribute this property should be a priority. You might want to include a certain beneficiary (such as a registered charity) to reduce the inheritance tax on your estate, or you might want to ensure that a particular person does not get access to it. Similarly, if you’ve recently disposed of a major asset, you may want to update your will to reflect that it’s no longer your property. Keeping your will accurate can help manage your beneficiaries’ expectations and prevent unnecessary disappointment or turmoil.

Divorce. In most states, a divorce usually means that your ex-spouse’s rights to any of your property are extinguished, even if you haven’t yet changed your will. Nonetheless, you should make a new will as soon as possible after your divorce. If your will goes before a probate court with your former spouse still named as a beneficiary, the court will distribute your property as if your ex-spouse were no longer living. Chances are this would mean the property would pass to your closest surviving relatives through your state’s intestacy laws. Promptly updating your will after the divorce leaves the choice in your hands.

Considerations for Making a Will in Your 50s, 60s and older

Serious Illness. If you’ve been diagnosed with a major illness, your thoughts may naturally drift toward writing your will. If you’ve already made a will, you should make sure that you’re satisfied with its terms and confirm that it’s met all legal requirements. If you’ve been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, you may want to videotape yourself signing the will or ask a witness to speak to your state of mind to provide evidence that you were of sound mind at the time of signing. You should also seriously consider other essential forms of estate planning, such as creating a healthcare Power of Attorney or a Living Will.

Disputes, Reconciliations, Additions and Deaths. Life is full of changes: you might have a serious dispute with a friend, but joyfully reconcile years later. Your favorite niece may marry a wonderful man, but become widowed soon after. You may find yourself with a stepchild, a grandchild or even a great-grandchild. Keep abreast of these changes in your life and be mindful of how they may affect your will. You may want to add or remove beneficiaries to ensure that your will accurately reflects your true wishes.

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