A will is meant to ensure you take care of your family after you’re gone. If you don’t outline your wishes, the courts probably won’t spend much time guessing.

Only 44% of Americans have penned a plan for when they die. The rest, whether they intend or not, are usually leaving the distribution of their estate up to the courts. Each state has defined rules when it comes to passing on without a will, and they generally don’t involve trying to figure at what your wishes might have been.

Intestate navigation

Passing without a will is known as dying intestate, and it means the courts will divide your assets in very specific ways:

  • Assets: New York has a path it usually follows if there are living relatives. The state has some precedent for distributing your assets to spouses, children, parents and siblings. The process is generally formulaic, and the only prerequisite is usually a familial relationship.
  • Named: Plans like pensions, trusts or life insurance that have their own direction will likely stay on that path. If you haven’t designated a beneficiary, the judge could treat the accounts like your other assets.
  • Co-owned: Anything you hold jointly will generally go to the other party involved. A bank account or title that you share with someone else may simply proceed by removing your name, in terms of ownership.

Make sure your family is taken care of how you want, not how the state sees fit. Counting assets, analyzing needs and naming beneficiaries are all important parts of the process. If you want it done to your liking, you’ll likely need to put it in a will.