What single parents need to know about wills and estate plans


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In this episode, LegalZoom's Laura Goldberg joins me to answer listeners' questions about how single moms can easily get a will and estate plan online:

  • Why a will is so, so important.
  • The expensive, heart-wrenching process that your loved ones face if you don't have a will.
  • How to have those difficult conversations, like guardianship of your kids in the event of your death, with loved ones.
  • The difference between a will and trust.
  • Why even very poor people need a will.
  • The cheapest, easiest, and most personal way to get a will today.
  • What you can learn from Price about the importance of legally securing your legacy.
  • What single parents need to know about estate planning.
  • The stress relief of creating a will (you know you should do it, but feel guilty/bad for not!)
  • Why a living will is one of the most loving gifts you can give people you care about most.

Have a listen, and head to LegalZoom's estate planning tools to quickly and affordably get a will and estate plan online, quickly.

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Basic Estate Planning for Single Parents

The full podcast transcript with LegalZoom‘s Laura Goldberg about why you need a will, how to get one, and how to get started on estate planning. LegalZoom is the leading online source for legally binding, affordable wills and estate plans.

Emma: Hello everybody. Welcome to Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. I am your host, Emma Johnson. You might know me from my journalism work where I’m a personal finance journalist for Forbes, I’ve written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, dozens of articles always focusing on women and money.

Today’s show on Like a Mother is sponsored by my friends at LegalZoom for National Make a Will Month. If you’re not familiar, LegalZoom is a site that helps people with their personal and business legal needs. I can tell you when I went through a major life change myself, I became a single mom through a divorce about five years ago, I turned to LegalZoom. I was feeling completely vulnerable because I knew I didn’t have a will. I needed to make some big decisions about what would happen to my family if something happened to me. It was a scary time and LegalZoom was just incredible.

It’s extremely affordable. You go online, you find the documents you need, you download them. It walks you through filling them out. This is all just this gorgeous technology. If you do get stuck like I did, there is an independent attorney in almost every single state that will talk to you on the phone, it’s part of this very reasonable fee, from the comfort of your own home, and walk you through it. It is available in every state in the U.S..

Now, today’s show is in much demand.

I know that my followers of my blog and my online forums wealthysinglemommy.com are always asking these questions about estate planning, trust planning, afterlife planning, and I have a very special guest today, Laura Goldberg from LegalZoom.

Thank you so much for being here, Laura.

Laura: Thank you for having me.

Emma: I know that I was a good girl and I did in fact, do my will and trust, to manage my finances and what would be my wishes for my children who are now six and eight years old, but the majority of Americans do not take that step. Is that right?

Laura: That is correct. About 65 percent of Americans die without any estate plan whatsoever. As you can imagine, it causes problems, whether it’s guardianship for your children, whether it’s who you wanted to leave your money, property, etc. too.

Emma: But then again, you never know what’s going to happen, right? I know I’ve heard anecdotally, many cases where it would seem cut and dry, things would be very straightforward, the family gets along, but things do get complicated when people pass away.

Laura: Absolutely. And I think it’s very interesting because if you don’t make it clear, maybe someone is very interested in your house, or someone is very interested in Grandmother’s wedding ring, or whatever it is. If you don’t plan these things and make your wishes totally clear up front, then you’re going to have people fighting over things that shouldn’t have been issues in the first place and could have been clarified. Essentially, you’re causing problems where there wouldn’t have been problems before.

I think the other thing too is, and where we are trying to go with estate planning is, making sure you have all of your passwords and accounts and everything stored in one place. That is the other thing if your cable company doesn’t know that you’ve passed away and that keeps getting billed, and different things like that. If you don’t make things clear, you don’t lay out where everything is, it just makes that process more and more difficult, and draws it out.

Emma: Oh my goodness, when I was going through this — note to self: I need to update this information! — I was making a list of all of my accounts. Like you said, everything from the cable bill to different retirement accounts, and all the passwords, which P.S., I change those all the time. And not strategically, by the way, it’s only because I’m super forgetful and I just forget and then I have to change them.

Our lives are very complicated. It’s not like our grandparents who probably had one retirement account, one checking account, maybe a savings account, and the house, and that was it.

Laura: Exactly. And maybe a key to a safety deposit box.

Emma: Yes. Right. It’s complicated, but I feel like all of those complications make it emotionally even harder to get through to people, because of the to-do list mounts and it’s such an emotional and touchy subject. Even though it’s kind of just logistics.

Laura: Yes, but you know, they’re hurt. People don’t want to think about their own death, rightfully so. Guardianship can be very tricky. There are hard conversations to have, and it’s something easy to put on your to-do list and delay having those conversations. You really need to have them, whether it’s with your children, whether it’s with your spouse or ex-spouse, and then with the people who you want to be there for your kids when you’re gone, whether it’s their guardian, whether it’s the person who’s going to be the executor of your estate. They’re hard conversations to have, but it is so much easier to have them now, than the chaos that will be left behind if you don’t deal with it.

Why Single Parents Need Wills (More than anyone else!)

Emma: Right. We have a caller. Somebody who has a question. Elizabeth, are you there?

Elizabeth: Yes, yes.

Emma: Hi.

Elizabeth: Alright, I know I should write a will, but I haven’t yet.

Emma: Elizabeth, why haven’t you created a will?

Elizabeth: I just haven’t gotten around to it, honestly. It’s always one of those things that’s on the list, but I’m not 90, so it doesn’t seem super urgent.

Emma: Right. So, what do you have to say to that, Laura?

Laura: I know it never seems urgent, but it is so much easier to just set the foundation now. By the way, this will be a living, breathing, document. You will buy and sell assets through your life, which you will put in and take out of your estate. If you have children, they will age. Who you want to take care of them may change. You may decide to leave different things to them as they age. If you just lay that foundation now, it is so easy to just update it. Then you think of it more as, “Hey, this is just chronicling our lives.” As opposed to, “Here’s a document about my death.”

Emma: Right. Right. It’s so morbid.

Elizabeth: Alright. I’m super motivated now. Thank you, guys.

Emma: Okay. You know what Laura, one of the things, probably the main reason I sought out LegalZoom is that it’s so affordable. It was a couple hundred dollars, and I live in New York City, where you can’t find a lawyer for under $300-$400 an hour. That’s an hour, plus my time of leaving home office during the work week and dealing with them. If I assume that it’s a very expensive process to get a will, I imagine lots of people assume that.

Laura: That’s right. And if you do go see a trust fund estate lawyer with nothing, it can be very expensive. We have really tried to combine technology with that attorney so that one, you get a lot of the information and your thoughts done before or after you talk to that attorney; and two, because we do so many wills and trusts, we have a network of attorneys that we can buy their time very affordably and then make them available to our customers.

Like you said, for a couple hundred dollars you can speak to an attorney. You can speak to that attorney more than once. You buy a house, you can speak to that attorney and understand how that becomes part of your trust, r your will. Maybe you child turns 18, maybe you want to remove guardian provisions, you can speak to the attorney then.

Because we do so many, we can get them affordable for our customers. Because we use technology to make things that might have taken a long time, whether it was drafting or other small questions, we can really make that affordable for people.

Emma: That’s awesome. It’s like free legal advice. I’m getting this awesome technology to create this very important document and relieve my mental stress. That is a huge value. You’re talking to a human being, which in this case I feel is such a huge value because you're not just talking about car insurance, right?

This is your life. This is your family, your legacy.

Laura: Right. And we work really hard with our attorney network to ensure that like our website, they speak in plain English, we have a very transparent process. They are incredibly empathetic. The comments we get back about their understanding about how difficult these decisions can be or about how other folks need to be consulted. We really pride ourselves on providing a different type of legal advice with people who are speaking your language and understand what you are going through.

Emma: You guys are not some weird little niche startup. You guys have been around for 15 years this year, right?

Laura: That’s right.

Emma: You’ve had close to four million customers. Four million customers, you know what you’re doing. This is a process that you have perfected and you know how to deliver awesome customer service.

Laura: Exactly. We complete a will every four minutes.

Emma: That’s kind of mind-blowing, and promising, right? We’re trying to close that. What was that number, again? The percentage, the majority of Americans do not have wills.

Laura: 65 percent. Personally, just for me, it’s really something that I’m very passionate about. I actually didn’t have a will before I came to work at LegalZoom. The first thing I did was do that and then berate everyone I knew about it. It is not that hard. It is not that expensive. You can really make your wishes known, and make problems go away, or not create problems where they don’t need to exist.

Emma: Okay, but it’s also the headspace. Everybody knows they’re supposed to do this, especially after listening to this show, they know it. There’s always this little nagging thing. It’s like, also you should go to the gym, and also you should be saving more money. All those “should”s that tax your mental health and they tax your energy, and they tax your physical health. Get that off of there. Get it off and deal with it.

Laura: Absolutely, absolutely.

And because the consultations are telephonic, because you can fill out forms online, you don’t have to make an appointment.

You don’t have to drive to another office and take hours out of your day. You can do it when you have time. When it’s convenient for you. You don’t have to do it all at once.

Emma: Are there any kind of famous cases, or known cases, whether you can share people’s names or not, where people didn’t have a will and it became just a disaster? We hear about celebrity cases and rich people and their heirs fighting for years in court. I mean, what’s a known case that illustrates the importance here?

Laura: The most recent case was Prince. Prince died in May. Prolific, prolific artist. I think there were something like 2,000 songs in his basement in storage that he had never released and he doesn’t have a will. It becomes super complicated. He doesn’t have children. He has a sister. It’s interesting because there are two things here. One is just his house, his money, that kind of stuff. But then, there’s his art in his basement, and when does it get released, who gets to see it? That is all the state of Minnesota is going to decide who gets what, and when, and why. It’s a very stark case because it wasn’t like there are two kids and this will make sense. There is going to be a huge prolonged fight over the assets, which are both creative and physical.

Emma: That’s so interesting, because Prince, ironically here, he was this maestro of legal lockdown. That’s the irony, right? I can’t get Prince out of my freaking Pandora because he was such a wiz with the legal, and he completely screwed all of us to get more Prince on our Pandoras because he didn’t have a will.

Laura: Exactly why he became a symbol was because his contract with Warner Brother’s was with Prince, so if he changed his name, he wasn’t Prince, he could put out other music. I mean, this was a guy who really thought a lot about the law and how to circumvent it and probably employed a lot of lawyers. When it came out that he didn’t have a will, I actually didn’t believe it for that exact reason. I was like, they must be holding it back for some reason. It’s amazing, right? Even people who seem to not be afraid of dealing with the law, or who have their acts together, just don’t take the time to do this really important part of their life planning.

Emma: Well, just to cut people some slack, it’s not just taking the time, right? It’s like, addressing the emotional things around it. I’ll be honest with you, it was hard for me, especially when it came to the part about deciding who I want to be guardians of my children. My family situation is kind of complicated. It wasn’t clear like some people are like, “Oh, well obviously my kids, I would want my older sister to do it.” It wasn’t so obvious to me. It forced some difficult conversations with my family. But I’m so glad I did it. And you know what? The people in my family are glad too because it’s not like, I’m introducing a wild and foreign concept. It’s something that is on everybody’s mind, all the time.

I just got a message from Megan, and she has a question similar.

“The reason that I’ve put off making my will is that I can’t decide on a guardian for my children.”

Like I said, that was a huge hangup for me. So Laura, what do you say to Megan?

Laura: I would tell Megan, I totally understand. It’s a very difficult decision. I have a couple kids, I had to make that decision and it was not easy. You have to think about who is going to take and embrace the responsibility and then who is going to do what you need them to do to raise your kids. Whether that’s moving to a different location, as is in my case. I live in Southern California and most of my family is in the North East. Who is going to be responsible and sort of true to how you would want to raise your children. It’s a hard conversation because you are likely telling someone no, and someone yes. It’s very hard. You just need to think of your children and what is best for them.

Emma: And there are lots of other things, too. Do those people want to have another child? That is really tricky. I know that was a question in my world. It’s painful if someone is like, “I’m not sure.” You want them to say, “Of course. You don’t even have to ask me, silly.” But they’re entitled to say no, or they’re entitled to say let me think about it.

Laura: And in some ways, you want them to think about it. You don’t want them to just knee-jerk say, “Of course. I would do anything for you.” It’s a big responsibility and I’ve heard of cases too where maybe the spouse was the guardian and then that spouse gets married. You should ask the person they’re marrying, “Hey, this person is the guardian of my children. Are you also going to be comfortable with that if something were to happen?” It’s something that you actively have to think about and manage.

Emma: Can you speak a little about divorced families? I’m a divorced mom and I do have joint legal custody with my ex-husband, so legally he would become the guardian. I don’t have a choice. I think a lot of parents, it’s a gray area if that other parent is not actively involved. If they’re kind of MIA or they live across the country. Common challenges in divorced families.

Laura: With divorced families, if you have joint custody, the other spouse would become the guardian or the sole guardian.

I think if one spouse is not involved, you either need to talk to them about, “Hey, if something happens to me, do you agree that this other person should have main custody?” And if they don’t agree and feel strongly, that is when you need to go speak to an attorney.

The other thing I would say too, though, is, you also need to coordinate, because while you are not together, something could happen to both of you. What you wouldn’t want is something to happen to one spouse and then the other, but because it’s that second will, that’s who gets the guardianship. Really, you need to be coordinated if something were to happen to both of you.

Emma: That’s tricky because most people don’t like talking to their exes.

Laura: I understand.

Emma: It’s just one more layer of difficult conversations, right?

Laura: That’s right. Hopefully, you only have to have that conversation once.

Emma: Yes, fingers crossed. It’s tricky. These are all bringing out all the nuances of the human condition, this process, all at LegalZoom.

I have another caller. Who do I have with me today?

Does A Single Parent Need An Estate Plan Or Just A Will?

Heather: Hello, this is Heather, from Dallas. How are you?

Emma: Hey, Heather. Thank you so much for calling. What is your question for Laura?

Heather: I’ve kind of gone online to look at different types, or actually where I should start with regards to estate planning. There seems to be so many different documents, and differences of opinion on exactly where to start.

What is the best start with regards to estate planning?

Laura: You should do some research for estate planning in Texas. There are really three main documents that you should look at getting. One is either a will or a trust, that will depend on your state. Which document works best, depends on the state. Then, you probably want advanced healthcare directive, or a living will, which talks about what would happen to you if you become incapacitated. Last is power of attorney, right? Because who gets to make the decisions if you are unable to make those decisions? You can do research online. At LegalZoom, we have a product where you pay one price, you can speak to an attorney before you start doing anything. So, you would speak to an attorney in Texas, they would tell you, “Okay, for Texas, this is really the document that you need. Here are the things you should think about.” Then you can go online and fill them out.

The other thing I would look at is, there are a lot of options where you just sort of fill things out, and you have a document. I would just be careful with those, that they’re really covering everything that you need to cover.

Heather: Because my employer has something where it’s like a free will service, I guess. I don’t know what it is. But, you know, I tried to fill it out but I still kind of feel like I have a lot more questions than the basic template if that makes sense.

Laura: Absolutely. And it’s why, for us, this product was so important to weave in those attorneys to give people peace of mind and to give them someone to ask simple or very complicated questions. But it has to be someone in your state. Because, for example, Texas law is very different from California law.

Emma: Does that answer your question, Heather?

Heather: Yes, absolutely.

Emma: Alright. Thanks so much for calling. That’s so interesting because every state has its own laws and there’s no such thing as a federal attorney who would know everything. That person doesn’t exist.

Laura: That’s right. It’s important. The laws are very, very different. Particularly needing a trust versus a will, and how probate works, and really what’s important to make sure you delineate in your will depends state-by-state.

Emma: Right. So much of what we’re doing now, I go to Amazon.com and New York City is the exact same Amazon.com that you’re seeing in LA, right? It is exactly the same. We’re all watching the same shows on Netflix. It seems like everything should be streamlined. You go online, it’s really cut and dry, but you know what? The law has not caught up with Netflix and Amazon. It’s still a very hands-on, high touch industry. It’s pretty remarkable that you can go on LegalZoom and get the efficiency and the cost savings of the technology, and have that high touch experience with somebody in your state that knows exactly what’s going on with your local law. That’s pretty remarkable to get the best of both worlds.

Laura: It is really what we were going for. We felt like we started with just the technology and the documents and just like your last caller, people don’t have that assurance that they thought of everything and that they’ve done the right thing. Being able to give them access to that attorney in their state that can answer those questions and really just make you feel like, “I did the right thing here. My family is protected. My estate is protected.” And just really giving that peace of mind we feel is so important.

Emma: Right. Alright, we have another call. Kristy, are you on the line?

Kristy: Hello.

Emma: Hi, Kristy. What is your question for Laura at LegalZoom?

Kristy: Well, Laura, I don’t have property, and honestly don’t have a lot of assets. I’m wondering if I still need a will?

Laura: You definitely still need a will. One, I’m sure you have anything. A bicycle is an asset. We use this term estate plan, but an estate is anything you have. The other thing is, there are last wishes that you may have. Do you want to be cremated or buried, that you want to delineate? You have digital assets, whether it’s your Facebook page, or subscription services, or music, or video assets that you may want to pass on, or you may want to have something done with. Then, you need an executor, and you may want to make gifts in your will.

I think the other thing too is that I would say that, think about it as a living document. Right now it might be a simple document with not that much in it, but it is much easier to update that document over the years, than to go, “Oh my God, I’ve never done this. This is going to be such a huge undertaking.”

Emma: That’s a great one, I think.

People are all like, “I’m not rich. I don’t need a trust. Sounds like something for rich people.” Also, it’s not just the stuff, right?

It’s like you mentioned earlier, you don’t know what your loved ones want. Maybe your sister has always been secretly wanting your Ikea silverware. For some reason, she’s emotionally attached to that. I don’t know? Right? It’s just really cutting down on the bickering. And the family, it’s giving them just a little bit of a roadmap and what to do. I know, I’ve been in situations when somebody passes away and it is overwhelming to deal with a household of stuff. Where do you even start?

Laura: That’s right.

Emma: Here’s a question for you Laura. What’s the difference between a will and a trust?

Laura: A will is sort of a document that just delineates who gets what. A trust is more of an instrument, you actually put your house in the trust, you put your bank accounts in the trust, and then when you pass, the trust actually administers who gets what. In some ways, again it depends on the state, a trust is a good way of not having to go through probate. It is the trust itself and whoever is your trustee who distributes the assets.

Emma: Got it. That sounds complicated. We’ve got the will and we have the trust. What about a living will and healthcare proxies. Talk to me about all that.

Laura: Living will, or advanced healthcare directives, again, called different things in different states, are really important. I think even harder sometimes than a death in the family is dealing with having to make decisions about what you may have wanted in the case that you become incapacitated. I will say, doing a living will or advanced health care directive, really makes you think about things and it’s sort of hard to think about, but it’s so important about what kind of care you want if you become incapacitated and how you want to be kept alive and fed. They’re really difficult decisions, but I think in some ways, probably the thing that children and the state could potentially fight about even more than your assets. Again, hard decision, but really important to make sure that you have one. Also, not to make it about money, but really keeps healthcare costs more manageable and where you want them to be.

Emma: Right. The other big point is that you are not only keeping your loved ones from fighting unnecessarily but if you are incapacitated or you die, they’re going to be distraught. We hope. Right? They’re going to be in crisis. You are helping them in a time when they are in crisis. You are making decisions for them at a time when it’s going to be hardest for them to make decisions. And that is a gift.

Laura: That’s right. It is absolutely a gift because otherwise, something happens, they’re in a hospital room, it’s late at night, and someone says, what do you want to do? It’s really difficult.

Emma: Absolutely. It is a gift. All of these things, again, they are making decisions, not only just reflecting what you want, but they are making decisions that your loved ones do not have to make in a time of grief and crisis. That is such a loving thing to do.

Laura: That’s exactly right.

Emma: Yes, alright, so excellent advice. I learned a ton. I was motivated to go and update my documents. I like to think I’m on top of my business, but we can all stand to improve.

Laura Goldberg at LegalZoom. Thank you so much for being here and educating us about why we need wills and trusts, how to get them, the processes to take to just get motivated because as you said, the majority of Americans do not have a will.

Laura: Exactly. Thank you so much for having me, I love talking about this and hopefully, if we got just a couple people to go just make an estate plan it’s been a success.

Emma: I completely agree, and I think just motivating people to just think about it and start to have conversations that they’ve been avoiding with their partner, loved ones, whatever, I think that this was a win.

Laura: Totally agree.

Emma: Laura Goldberg from LegalZoom. Now, LegalZoom is a site that helps people with their personal and business legal needs. Get on that will and estate planning, get on it now.

Share your experience: Did someone in your life pass away without a will? How did that affect their loved ones? Or, did a properly-executed will save a family heartache, expense, and time? Share in the comments below!


About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Love on August 17, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Good One

    • Emma on August 18, 2016 at 5:37 am

      Glad you enjoyed it :)

  2. Sunil soni on October 2, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    I like it but I am not going to har contri and citi

  3. Sophia on March 14, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    I was actually just telling one of my co-workers this today. She is a fellow is a fellow single mother with three children and I told her that it is so important to her estate in order, life insurance, all of it. Because you never know what may happen.

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