Follow this blueprint to ensure your loved ones are taken care of after you’re gone.
It may be unpleasant to think about, but crafting a will can help to ensure your possessions are left in the right hands.
The hardest part of writing a will is often finding the will to write it. After all, it’s a document you hope won’t be used for a long time. By writing it, you’re acknowledging that you may not be immortal. Add in the many other activities that are more fun than writing a will, like going to the beach or hanging out with friends and family, and you have a surefire recipe for procrastination.
If you’ve been putting off the task, here’s your chance to cross it off your list. Get started now, and finish your will in 10 relatively easy steps.
- Lawyer, online software or do it yourself? Because there are so many opportunities to make mistakes, don’t opt for a DIY will. One of the best examples arguably lies with the late Warren Burger. You’d think a Supreme Court justice would have no problem writing his own will, but he made an array of errors that cost his heirs plenty in legal fees and more than $450,000 in taxes. If you’re firmly in the middle class, you can probably get away with writing a will using a legal online site. But if you are upper-middle class or worth more, you should almost certainly find an estate attorney.
- Select your beneficiaries. When you die, someone is going to get your money, your house and your boxes of yellowing Mad magazines. You probably won’t have to think long about beneficiaries, unless your family structure is complicated. There will be a place to identify beneficiaries on the form, and if you have an attorney, he or she will write your will for you. But it isn’t a bad idea to first get everything on paper, just for your own thoughts.
- Choose the executor of your will. This person is tasked with making sure the wishes in your will are carried out, so you’ll want to choose someone who is responsible. “If it’s Uncle Henry, and Uncle Henry is an idiot, you have a problem,” says Ben Neiburger, an elder law attorney at Generation Law Ltd., based in Elmhurst, Illinois.
Neiburger adds that if you designate one of your children as the executor, and your kids don’t get along, that could also be a problem. In the interest of “family harmony,” he says you may want to consider designating a neutral party, like a bank. The job of executor is also difficult work, and even a trusted, smart family member could make a mistake. Your family might get more for their money if you hire an attorney or bank to execute your will.
- Decide if your executor will receive compensation. If you choose a bank or lawyer as your executor, there will be a fee involved, which is usually between 2 percent and 4 percent of your estate’s assets.
If you’re designating a family member or friend, it’s a good idea to be clear about whether they’ll be compensated and, if so, whether it will be an hourly rate or a percentage of assets. “Oftentimes, people will want to leave it sort of vague, where they have language that allows for reasonable compensation, but that’s loosey-goosey,” Colby says.
Keep in mind that closing an estate can be an arduous, complicated slog. You may have your reasons for not wanting your executor to earn some money closing your estate, but hopefully they’re good reasons.
- Pick a guardian for your kids.Do you need to get permission from your friend or family member before appointing them guardian? No, you do not, according to Colby Green, a River Forest, Illinois, attorney who specializes in estate planning. But asking is a good idea, because as Green says, “On the flip side, they don’t have to accept it when the time comes.” And if your designated guardian turns down the role, a court will choose the guardian, Colby adds.
- Be specific about who gets what.If you want your wedding gown to go to your daughter or your antique armoire to go to your son, put that down.
And if someone in your family isn’t going to receive anything, make note of that, too. “Name that person and say that they aren’t getting anything,” Colby advises. “Otherwise, the implication could be that you forgot about them, and you could find your will challenged in court.”
Colby says you may also want to explain in the will why someone isn’t receiving money. For instance, if you’ve given one child a lot of financial assistance as an adult and the other virtually none, you may want to leave the bulk of your assets to the one you didn’t help, Colby says. Explaining that could assuage hard feelings after you’re gone.
- If there’s more you want to say, attach a letter to the will. In the movies, there’s often a reading of the will where heirs come together and hear who will receive what. That doesn’t happen often in real life. Wills, being legal documents, are often impersonal, although there’s sometimes room for the occasional sentimental or humorous aside. Colby says he has had clients attach personal letters to wills. “You might write a letter to the child or spouse or guardian. You see that a lot with letters to guardians where you express your hopes and desires in how your child would be raised,” he says.
- Other people need to sign the will.You need witnesses, 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. And ideally, they should be people who are likely to be around when you aren’t. That’s because if something goes wrong and your will is contested in court, the judge may want a witness to testify.
In some states, you’ll need two witnesses; in others, three. “When wills are signed incorrectly, they can become invalid. As you can imagine, that can be horrible,” says Neiburger, who recalls a client whose boyfriend left her a duplex in Chicago. Because a signature was in the wrong place, she almost didn’t get the two-flat apartment. “After 20,000 dollars in legal fees, we were able to squeeze it free from the courts and get her the property,” Neiburger says.
- Find a place for your will.Don’t just throw it in a shoe box and forget about it. What if the unthinkable happens and your heirs need 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. And it’s probably a good idea to store the original copy somewhere secure, like in a fireproof safe. “I always tell my clients, I don’t want you, your house and your will to burn up at the same time,” Neiburger says.
- Now that you’re done, you aren’t done.Assuming this is still an unfinished part of your agenda, you should work on a power of attorney and a living will in case you’re ever incapacitated.
You should also think about updating your will every four or five years, Neiburger suggests. “You’ll want to look at it and see if anyone has [ticked] you off or if someone has died,” he says.
Updating the will won’t take long – maybe five minutes, Neiburger says.
And then you can go to the beach.