Put it in writing!

Do your family a favor and draw up a will and estate plan. That means you too, millennials and Gen Xers.


Shanna Yonke, an attorney with Ruder Ware, says wills and estate planning are something younger people often don’t think about, but they should.

Attorney Shanna Yonke has seen this unfortunate scenario a few times during in her job with Ruder Ware Law Firm: A young couple or a single parent with a minor child dies, and hadn’t put together an estate plan or a will. The child then goes through a long and sometimes traumatic court process to decide who will be the guardian. Already faced with the trauma of losing a parent, the child now might have to stay with a foster family while the lengthy procedure plays out.

“The worse-case scenario is one in which we see numerous family members fighting over who should be named guardian of the child,” Yonke says.

That’s part of the reason Ruder Ware this year is launching a series of seminars aimed at teaching people why they need a will or estate plan. While anyone can attend, the seminars (still in the planning stage) aim to spread the word especially to younger people about the need for such documents. “There’s definitely a void in terms of young people understanding that they need estate planning too,” Yonke says.

According to a survey conducted by caring.com, roughly 60% of people lack the necessary estate planning documents. Skewing that average: 78% of millennials and 64% of Gen Xers don’t even have a will.

And no, a letter in your drawer spelling out who gets the house and car when you die won’t cut it, Yonke says. The court won’t recognize the documents unless they’ve been prepared according to state statutes. The document needs to be signed by two witnesses, who have no skin in the game, so to speak. Preferably, but not required, the document will be signed by a public notary.

Also not recognized by the court: last minute changes. Alterations documented with initials won’t hold, Yonke says. It’s best to consult with a lawyer.

Appropriate planning affects multiple generations. For those nearing or at retirement age, a will and/or estate plan clarifies details so your descendants aren’t mired in legal wrangling upon your death—this can be cumbersome even when the deceased has relatively few assets. Property, bank accounts, savings and investments must all be distributed, and without planning documents, a court must untangle these details.

Younger people need to consider other things as well, Yonke says. For example, parents are first on the default list of where assets go, according to state statute. But the parents might not want those assets, Yonke explains. They might already have plenty of money, or be in a situation where the extra assets would disqualify them for programs or bump up medical insurance payments.

Yonke’s own estate plan state that her assets go to her brother, because the money would be more useful to him than her parents.

There are two types of planning documents. A will is a simple document of instructions specifying where someone’s assets will pass, but still goes through probate court.

An estate plan is more elaborate and expensive to complete, but almost completely cuts out the court process and gives the most control. It operates like a trust, gives the creator and their beneficiaries more flexibility, and is much easier to amend. Estate plans are also more difficult to challenge in court.

But even a simple will is better than nothing.