“If I am Not for Myself, Who Will Be For Me?”Ethics of our Fathers)
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (d. 1933), the saintly scholar known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” cited this passage to urge people to sign a financial will (“last will”). He added that they should do this even when there is no immediate fear of death, and all the more so when they age.
If you won’t take the time to tell people your preferences, how will they know? How can you expect them to do this for you later?
In the 21st century, there are many clear benefits to writing a financial will:
1. Streamline the legal process and save time, money, and stress for your loved ones.
Many estates have to go to probate court to start the legal process overseeing the distribution of assets. A qualified attorney can help you arrange your assets in a way that will minimize the bureaucracy. But if you don’t have a will, the court process — known as intestate administration — can get especially complicated. Without a will, the court has to name an administrator to administer your estate. And this can be time-consuming, expensive, and even contentious for your loved ones. The court may also divide up your property in accordance with local laws which differ from your personal preference.
2. Determine who will manage your estate
When you write a will, you become a “testator” and have the opportunity to nominate an “executor.” This is the person who will be in charge of wrapping up all your affairs. Being an executor is an important job. Their responsibilities may include everything from closing bank accounts to liquidating assets. Choose someone who is capable and who you trust to carry out these activities. If you don’t choose an executor in your will, the court will pick one for you — and it may not be the person you’d want.
3. Decide who gets your assets and property — and who does not.
A will lets you decide who will get your property. As the testator, you can name people as beneficiaries for specific assets. You can also name beneficiaries for any property that you don’t list — the “residuary” of your estate. When your executor handles your will, they’ll be in charge of distributing these assets. You can also make sure that some beneficiaries receive benefits that others received in your lifetime. For example, if one child received support for schooling or a wedding, you might want to make sure a second child gets their fair share, too. A will can also help ensure that some people don’t receive anything (like an ex-spouse).
4. Choose who will take care of your minor children.
If you’re a parent, you can use your will to nominate a guardian for your minor children. The surviving parent will usually get sole legal custody if one parent dies. But if both parents pass, this is one of the most important reasons to have a will. And if you don’t nominate a guardian in your will, a court will have to choose one for you. This could mean that someone you would not have chosen will be raising your kids, or that your family members might fight over this crucial responsibility. (If you have a beloved pet, you might also leave provisions for their care).
5. Lower the potential for family disputes.
If you have complicated family dynamics, there’s a good reason to have a will. When you die without a will, your family will have to guess at what your final wishes were. And chances are, they won’t always agree. This ambiguity can create friction, and even fights, which sometimes lasts a lifetime. Creating a will solves the problem by eliminating the guesswork.
6. Support your favorite causes and leave a legacy.
Many people want to leave a positive impact on the world after they pass. And a great way to do this is to support the charities or causes you love most. When you write a will, you can preserve your legacy by leaving a part of your estate to a charitable organization.
A will can also allow you to record preferences for your funeral and burial, provide instructions for care for your pets, and determine how you your digital assets (e.g., photos, emails, social media accounts) should be handled.
Ultimately, writing a will can provide you with peace of mind. You should update it over time as your needs and the people in your life change. You’ll know that even after you pass away, you’ll still be looking after your loved ones.
Please note: The widespread custom today within all segments of the Jewish community is to divide one’s estate in a manner that is entirely different from the Biblical laws of inheritance. There are different and relatively simple ways to write a will in a manner that is compliant with rabbinic law. Here’s one sample model from the Beth Din of America. Please consult with your rabbi for more information.