The word “will”, or also commonly referred to as the “last will and testament”, is sometimes accompanied by a shudder. Let’s face it. Death or dying remains one of the most sensitive topics to talk about for many of us. It’s a word that’s often ridden with anxiety and fear especially if it concerns ourselves or those we love. But if there’s one thing that the coronavirus pandemic taught us, it’s that things can change in the blink of an eye. Much of our lives, in the grand scheme of things, are beyond our control; but there are still a lot of them that we can prepare for and manage. One of which is a will, and you will be pleased to hear that it doesn’t really take much to draw one up.
What Is A Will?
A will is a legal document that details out what happens to your assets and properties after your passing. It declares how the things you leave behind are to be distributed and who’ll have the new responsibility of them or inherit them. Wills are also not limited to belongings. Wills can ensure that your children, of minor age or with special needs, are taken care of after your death by someone of your choosing – someone that you trust.
If it’s not yet clear – a will is an act of love and regard for the people and things that we’ll one day inevitably leave behind.
A Will Is An Act of Love
Life is precious, which is why the best investment we can possibly make is to take care of ourselves – we eat well, exercise regularly, and even secure a health insurance. But, life is also very painfully fragile, and 2020 is the year we are reminded to appreciate every opportunity we are given to make the most out of what we have.
Plus, nothing beats the peace of mind as we enjoy retirement, preferably in one of the best states to retire, knowing that we have our loved ones covered.
To ensure that the people and things we love the most are taken care of by the time we are no longer around, we must take the time to finally sit down and write a will, even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult. That’s because the only thing worse than writing a will is not writing one. This article aims to let you know that preparing or writing a will doesn’t have to be any of those.
A will is legally binding. This means that there are laws and regulations that ensure the execution of your wishes.
Against a common misconception, having a will is not only for the rich and powerful. It is something everybody should consider having. Without it, the dispersion of your properties after you die will be decided according to state laws.
In writing a will, there are a few important questions you might ask. A few of which are as follows:
- What can I include?
- Who can I include?
- What can my will cover?
- Do I need to have a lawyer to write a will?
- Who should have access to it? Where can I keep it safely?
- Really… where do I start?
What To Include When Writing A Will
Let’s start with the basics. There are different components of a will. It is important to keep these things in mind when making a will. It is now the best time to ask yourself, “What should be in my will?”.
The executor is the person you can designate to ensure that the terms in your will are honored. The executor will also oversee paying off any remaining debts or liabilities using the funds from your estate. This person is responsible for properly transitioning over any special conditions and gifts, such as pets and other valued property. The executor can be a family member, such as one of your children or a sibling. It can also be a trusted friend or somebody you can employ, like an attorney or an estate or financial expert. Hired executors may be entitled to professional fees based on state-mandated guidelines.
With the responsibilities of an executor, it is only important to choose someone level-headed and trustworthy.
List of Assets and Properties
Itemize what you currently own. The list should contain all the important resources and access that you want to pass on and mention in your will. These can include real estate and land properties, vehicles, collectibles, and cash and cash equivalent. There might be some assets that can’t make the list, particularly because they might be shared with a joint owner or a list of beneficiaries was already predefined, such as in life insurances. In such cases, you might want to check state rules and account policy terms.
List of Beneficiaries
Beneficiaries are the people who’ll inherit your assets and properties. The list can include your family members such as a spouse, your children, and other relatives. You can also on the list. Ensure to use the legal full names of your beneficiaries in your will. Lastly, you also have an option to name an organization or a charity as your beneficiary. It should go without saying that it is not advisable to name your pet or pets as beneficiaries. Instead, you can pass them on to a new guardian.
List of Guardians
Guardians are people who you want to be responsible for and take care of any dependents after your passing. Dependents can be minor children, family members with special needs, or a relative who relies on you for financial support.
Trust VS Will
Now that we have covered the basic inclusions of a will, let’s differentiate trusts from wills before diving into the details of the writing process.
Both wills and trusts are legal mechanisms in creating an estate transfer plan. The primary difference is that a will is to be executed in the event of your death, while a trust can take effect beforehand, even immediately after it has been created. As previously mentioned, you’ll need an executor to carry out your will. For a trust, you can authorize a third party to handle your assets and properties for your beneficiaries. A trust can also avoid a probate process. In terms of inclusion, a trust only includes those assets and properties that have been handed over to the trust, whereas a will can cover any property.
It is important to mention that wills and trusts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, having both can make a more effective estate transfer planning. You may want to consult an attorney if you plan on getting a trust. On the other hand, writing a will might be a simpler process than you can imagine.
Types of Wills
There are different types of wills, and deciding on which to draw up depends ultimately on what best fits your situation.
When we said a will does not have to be complicated, we were referring to the simple will. As the name implies, it is a simple legal will that contains the most basic elements – a list of assets, beneficiaries and possible guardians, and the executor. There are a couple of softwares and programs on the internet that allows you to draw up your own simple online will – LegalZoom being one of the most reputable platforms.
“What is a living will?” is one of the common questions that come up when talking about the different types of will. A living will is a type of will that can outline your wishes in cases where you’re in life-threatening or terminal conditions. This is different from a last will and testament, as the latter is to be executed after your death. A living will can prove very useful to specify your wishes in the event that you are unable to do so, saving your loved ones possible painful decisions they might have to make.
A joint will, often between a married couple, is another legal document combining the last will of two or more people on how their assets are to be handled. It usually names the surviving spouse as the beneficiary; and upon the death of the surviving spouse, the will-makers can further specify other beneficiaries such as children or other family members.
Holographic wills are to be taken with caution as some states might not honor or permit them. They are handwritten and signed by hand, usually in last-minute situations without the presence of a lawyer. Holographic wills are almost always not witnessed or legalized by a notary, which causes validity issues during the probate process.
How to Write A Will
Now that we have covered the basics, let’s get started with writing a will. It is probably safe to assume that we have already passed the “Do I Need A Will?” phase, and are now moving on to the “How To Make A Will?” phase.
Creating a will, traditionally, used to only be associated with this exaggerated legal process of having to employ a couple of lawyers, pay tons for outrageous legal fees, and writing a list of overly dramatic inheritance terms (we have Hollywood partly to blame!). But, we are here to assure you that it doesn’t have to be that way.
Being a legal document, your last will and testament would require that you understand the requirements and rules stipulated by the state and by the law. In certain situations, getting a legal advisor is the best way to go. Lawyers are professionally equipped to take care of the process for you. They are responsible for translating your wishes correctly into a legal document. Today, we even have different legal services available on the internet, making it easy to get in touch with attorneys to create wills online.
But the better news is that yes, it is possible to create a will by yourself. Online wills platforms that offer legal services, such as LegalZoom.com, USLegalWills.com, and Fabric.com, are made conveniently accessible.
How to Make a Will Without A Lawyer
Now that you have decided to do your own will, here are some steps and tips to keep in mind.
Step 1: Understand the State Rules and Requirements
(aka How To Avoid Legal Complications?)
It is important to understand the laws that govern your state in terms of wills as it might affect how your assets are dispensed later on. Review any law that will have a bearing on your will. This helps your loved ones avoid legal complications later on and ensure that your will and testament is valid.
Step 2: Create a List of Your Assets and Properties
(aka What Stuff Do You Have To Share?)
List out what you currently own that you want your beneficiaries to inherit. Assets that you can include can be any of the following:
- Personal properties, like arts and collectibles, cars, pieces of jewelry, etc.
- Real estate and land properties
- Cash and cash equivalents
- Investments, stocks, and bonds
- Savings accounts
- Intellectual properties
Take note that there might be some assets that you can not include, as mentioned briefly in our earlier discussions.
Step 3: Name Your Beneficiaries
(aka Who’ll Get Your Stuff?)
After identifying the stuff that you have, name the beneficiaries who will inherit your assets or a portion of them. Beneficiaries can be individuals or entities. Individuals can be your family members – your spouse, children, siblings, and other relatives, or they can also be close friends. You can also name entities such as charities or other organizations.
It is also essential that you specify which and how much goes to whom. Include as many details as possible – the legal full names of your beneficiaries, business names of organizations, full addresses of real estate and land properties, among others.
It might also be helpful to name secondary or contingent beneficiaries, in case that they outlive the primary beneficiaries. Another useful tip is not to designate a beneficiary as your witness. We will talk about witnesses in Step 7, but essentially, it’s not legally possible in most States for a beneficiary and a witness to be the same person.
Step 4: Appoint an Executor
(aka Who is The Person You Trust The Most To Carry Out Your Wishes?)
Think of an individual who will be your personal representative. You want this to be someone who will act on your behalf in good faith. It won’t be an easy job and the process can be long and taxing, so you’ll want someone committed and reliable. You can name a family member, a close friend, or a professional as your executor.
Step 5: Identify the Guardians for your Dependents
(aka Who Can Take Care Of Your Kids and Other Dependents?)
If you have dependents, like minor children or family members with special needs, designating their guardians is the most important decision that you’ll have to make. We have already established that writing a will is an act of love. And, nothing speaks love more than proactively choosing someone who you think will take good care of your loved ones and place their best interests as their priority.
Choosing a guardian requires a lot of thinking and reflection. You might need to ask questions like:
- Is this person capable and able to raise my kids – financially, physically, and emotionally?
- Do they embody the values that I believe in?
- Can they take this responsibility in the long-term?
Once you’ve decided on who your guardians will be, you may want to take the opportunity to talk to them, ask their permission, and agree on expectations, before making it official on your will.
Step 6: Detail Other Wishes
(aka Who Do You Want To Look Out For Your Pets?)
The pets you love so dearly will surely need a new loving home after you’re gone. Fortunately, you can include instructions for special wishes like planning the custody and care for your pets after your passing. You may also want to specify care and compensation conditions for the said wishes.
Step 7: Get it Signed
(aka The Legal Stuff)
Once all the necessary details are in place, you’ll want to make it legal and valid. You’ll be required to sign your will in the presence of two disinterested witnesses. These witnesses have to be of legal age and must have a thorough understanding of the document. They also have to sign and date the document. In some states, beneficiaries cannot be witnesses. In the event that this happens, the inheritance might be considered void.
Step 8: Secure Your Will
(aka Keep It Safe!)
Find a place to store your will for safekeeping while still making it accessible to your loved ones and executor. Likewise, keep associated documents intact and safe.
It is important that your will is easily accessible by those affected by it. If you have a secure place at home, such as a locked drawer, a cabinet, or a safe, you can keep it in there. Someone, whom you trust, should be aware of your will’s location, in the event that you die. Consider sharing this information to your executor or a trusted family member. If you hired a lawyer, they might be able to keep your will for you. Once your original copy is in a safe and easy-to-access storage, you can also consider sharing copies of your will to your beneficiaries, although this is not mandatory.
The bottomline is, while you would want to keep your will safe, you also would want the right people to find it. This is just as important as creating it in the first place.
Why is it Important to Make a Will? What Happens If I Die Without a Will?
Tomorrow is not promised. Writing a will is preparing for what is ultimately inevitable. It lets you take an active role in deciding what becomes of your hard-earned properties after you die, while at the same time making it much easier for your loved ones to have access to whatever you leave behind.
If you die in intestacy, which means dying without a will, getting access to your assets and properties can be stressful to your loved ones. The dispersion of your properties will be determined by a probate court. The court then appoints an administrator to oversee the distribution of assets to possible beneficiaries, determined through intestate succession, in accordance with state laws. For example, if you are married, most, if not all, of your properties will be transferred to your spouse.
With the courts in total control of your estate, not creating a will is basically waiving your power in deciding who manages your estate, who inherits your assets, and in some cases, raise your kids.
If you are a parent to minor children, a will can ensure that a guardian or guardians will take care of your children’s needs and upbringing. Even in your absence, your kids and dependents know how much you have thought of their well-being by ensuring that they are in good hands. What’s more, with a will, you can also secure a home for your pets.
At the end of the day, having a will is about remembering whom you’re doing it for. It actually has little to do with the material belongings, but more on the intention of leaving memories and doing that final act of love for those you leave behind.