While you may be inclined to put off thinking about your mortality, taking the time to prepare a well-written document that indicates how you would like your possessions and assets to be distributed after you die is key to avoiding strife among loved ones.
And though you’re acknowledging you won’t live forever by drawing up a will, leaving behind a record of how you want your personal belongings and money to be allocated is important.
If you’ve been procrastinating on completing the task, here’s your chance to cross if off your list. Get started and complete your will in 10 simple steps.
1. Do You Want Help Or Use A Do-It-Yourself Software Program
Consider either using an attorney or a reputable online software to help you write your will, rather than opting for a DIY will. There are too many horror stories of people who wrote out wills on their own – with financially devastating consequences, including saddling heirs with steep legal fees and hefty taxes.
One of the best examples of why you shouldn’t write your own will lies with the late Warren Burger, a Supreme Court justice. You would think he, of all people, could write a will, but it was only 450 words, vague and riddled with errors. His heirs spent a fortune in legal fees and more than $450,000 in taxes by the time they were finally able to collect their assets. If you’re firmly in the middle class, and your financial portfolio is fairly simple, you can probably get away with writing a will using a legal online site. But if you are upper-middle class or worth millions, hire an estate attorney. While the price will depend on the intricacy of your financial situation, you can expect to pay a few thousand dollars to work with a reputable estate attorney to ensure your assets are protected.
2. Select Your Beneficiaries
When you die, someone is going to receive your money, your house and other belongings. You probably won’t have to think long about the beneficiaries you designate, but it’s key to ensure that who you select is up-to-date. If you go with a legal online site, there will be a place to identify beneficiaries on the last will and testament form; if you have an attorney, he or she will write your will for you.
3. Choose The Executor For Your Will
This person will be tasked with making sure the wishes in your will are carried out, so you’ll want to choose someone who is responsible. You may end up choosing your bank or an attorney as your executor, in which case you can expect to spend 2 to 4 percent of your estate’s assets. If you’re designating a family member or friend, experts still say they should be compensated, either through an hourly rate or a percentage of assets. After all, closing an estate can be an arduous task.
4. Pick A Guardian For Your Kids
Do you need to get permission from your friend or family member before appointing them as guardian? No, you do not, according to experts. But if you don’t, consider naming three guardians in order of your preference, advises Tara Wilson, an estate planning attorney who practices in Andover, Massachusetts. “Not everyone will be in a position to take on such a role at that time,” she says. It’s also a wise idea to name people to take over guardianship if, say, a couple watching your kids were to die or divorce, she adds.
5. Be Specific About Who Gets What
Do not be vague in your will. Do not hope that everyone will know what you want. This can be especially tricky when you’ve had multiple children, and you have your children and stepchildren in the mix.
Patrick Simasko, an elder law attorney and wealth preservation specialist at Simasko Law in Mount Clemens, Michigan, puts it this way: You may leave your estate to your third wife and hope that when she passes away, your children will inherit your money. While that may seem sound, Simasko says that it won’t work out that way if you give all of your money to that third wife. In that scenario, she would inherit the bulk of your assets and she may want to leave it to her kids. And that would be her legal right, Simasko adds. “You have to realize, when she gets the estate it is hers and she can do whatever she wants with the money,” Simasko says.
This doesn’t mean you can’t fashion your will so that your third wife and your children are taken care of, but that’s why an attorney who knows what he or she is doing is so important.
6. Be Realistic About Who Gets What
Even if you’re determined to fairly distribute your assets, it still isn’t easy, points out Brian Decker, a financial planner and founder of Decker Retirement Planning Inc., with offices in Washington, California and Utah.
“Let’s say you have three piano-playing children and one piano. You cannot divide that equally. Nor can you divide your car, home, jewelry and artwork,” Decker says. Your estate could sell the assets, like your house and car, he says. Still, rather than striving for making everything completely equal, Decker recommends talking to your heirs about your assets.
“This is where you call or email your children and let them know that you are not going to be around forever and if they have their eye on anything other than house and cars, to let you know so that you can write that down and make sure they get that item when you pass. Now your kids can’t be victims and say that the distribution was not fair. They had a chance to speak up,” Decker says. He offers up examples of items your kids may be crushed if you put in writing that you want sold, like your wedding dress.
7. Attach A Letter To A Will If There’s More To Say
In television shows and movies, there’s often a reading of the will where heirs come together and hear who will receive what. That doesn’t often happen in real life, though some estate planners report that clients attach personal letters sometimes as a way to say goodbye and make your wishes clear and personal.
8. Other People Need To Sign Your Will
You will need witnesses to sign your will, and in many states, the witnesses can’t be people who stand to inherit anything in the will. Your witnesses also need to be at least 18 years old. Ideally, they’ll be people who are likely to be around when you aren’t. If something goes wrong, and your will is contested in court, the judge may want to call a witness to testify. In most states, you’ll need two witnesses; in Vermont, you’ll need three.
9. Find A Place For Your Will
Don’t write a will and then put it somewhere it will be forgotten. What if the worst happens? You don’t want family members wondering if you wrote a will and then not be able to find it. Make sure someone you trust knows where to find your will as well as any other important papers and passwords to financial institutions like banks. It’s also a good idea to store the original copy somewhere secure, like in a fireproof safe.
10. Review And Update Your Will
After drawing up your will, you’ll also want to work on a power of attorney and a living will in case you’re ever incapacitated. You’ll also want to update your will, especially after any major life event, such as a marriage, divorce or a birth. Otherwise, you may find that you’ve left your assets to your ex-spouse, and none of your money and belongings are left to your children. Make sure to revisit and update the document every few years to reflect any necessary changes after any significant life event to ensure your personal belongings are distributed according to your wishes.
Source: U.S. News & World Report