Unfortunately, admitting it’s a rather unsettling topic doesn’t make it any less important to plan for the inevitable, and that means making sure you have an updated will. If you were to die, you can have peace of mind now, knowing your assets will be passed to your loved ones according to your wishes.
Here are the steps to take and the elements to keep in mind when you draft your will:
1. Understand what a will is
You’ve probably heard the term before, but a will is a legally enforceable document that provides instructions as to how you want your property distributed after your death. This may include, but not be limited to, instructions on:
- Where your money should go.
- Who will take ownership of any real estate you own.
- A guardian for your children.
Wills can be as basic or as elaborate as you wish. You can even write out your will right now on a sheet of paper, although without witnesses or a notary, it might not be legal in your state. There are other, more professional means, though. Dozens of computer programs and templates are available to help you write a will, and many attorneys specialize in wills, probate and estate law.
To be safe and legal, though, it’s important to:
- Work with a lawyer to draw up your will.
- Have at least two witnesses there to verify that you signed it yourself.
- Have the will notarized.
Elements of a Will
1. Your Assets, or What are you willing?
Whether it’s a long list or a short one, it’s important to make a list of all the assets you own. Include all of your:
- Bank accounts
- Credit cards
- Retirement funds
- Money that will be paid from your life insurance policy
Keep in mind that this list can and should be updated frequently as your assets and life changes.
You can even account for social media in your will just as you would any other property. You can appoint an online executor - someone to manage or close your email accounts and profiles. Your executor should have a list of any websites where you have a profile, along with your user names and passwords.
2. Your Beneficiaries, or Who are you willing to?
The people whom you designate to receive your assets are called your beneficiaries. In most cases, these include your spouse, children and immediate family. Beneficiaries can also be organizations that you want to support, life-long friends, or even total strangers. Just remember to include both primary and secondary beneficiaries in case the primary ones die before you or don’t meet the conditions for getting your assets.
You can get as specific as you need to in your will, to make sure that your son inherits your heirloom pocket watch or your granddaughter gets your car. You also have the right to specify certain conditions for getting your assets. Now, you might not be able to make your cousins stay one night in a haunted mansion, but you can set aside money for your daughter contingent on her graduation from high school or for your nephew to start that small business he’s always wanted. Specifics like these may not be legally binding in some states, which is one reason you should consult a lawyer.
2.5. What about your kids?
If you have minor children, you need to decide who will become their guardians. In most cases, that’s the surviving parent, assuming you share custody, but it still needs to be specified in the will. You’ll also need to pick a legal guardian should something happen to both parents. This decision should not be taken lightly and, just as importantly, it should be discussed with the potential guardians.
3. Your Executor, or Who makes sure this happens when you're gone?
What good are all these decisions and wishes if no one carries them out? That’s where the “executor” comes in. This person is named in the will, and ensures that your estate is divided up as you will it. For obvious reasons, this should be someone you trust. He or she will also be responsible for paying any debts that are associated with your estate and distributing your remaining assets. According to USA.gov, the executor is legally obligated to follow the wishes written in the will. You can consult an attorney to help you determine who is the best choice to be your executor.
Important Questions to Ask
What happens to your will after you die?
1. After you die, your executor will file paperwork with the local probate court. (Probate is a legal process that takes place after someone dies.)
2. During probate, your executor proves your will is valid.
3. Once that’s been validated, he or she will inventory your property, pay debts and taxes, and distribute the remaining property as the will (or state law, if there's no will) directs.
An important difference between wills and life insurance is that life insurance is a contract between you and the life insurance company and the death benefit will go to your beneficiaries (with few exceptions) - not probate.
What can happen if you don't have a will?
Dying without a will (known as dying “intestate”) can be a problem for your loved ones, and make the pain of dealing with your passing all the more frustrating. Laws vary from state to state. In most situations, the bulk of your property goes to your next of kin, usually your spouse or children. However, depending on the state, your property may:
- Go to your spouse, even if you have children together.
- Get divided up among your spouse and descendants.
- Become a battle between parents and siblings.
Discussing what will happen after your death is not pleasant, but it's an important thing to do. When you feel the time is right, talk to a lawyer and start drawing up your will. Remember, it can be changed or updated at any time.
Then have a chat with your family to make sure they know what to expect after your passing.
Not sure about your next steps? Call us at 858-487-9200 and we'll get you moving in the right direction.