Making a will is one of those depressing-but-necessary things you need to do as an adult. Sure, it’s not fun to think about death, but if you don’t specify where all your assets will go once you die, you could risk having your loved ones miss out. This is especially important if you have a spouse or children.
With an important legal document like a will, it’s important to consult the experts to make sure you’ve covered all the basics. An estate planning attorney knows exactly what to include in a will or estate plan, and will make sure your will is thorough and explicit about what should happen to your assets after you die. But if lawyer fees aren’t in your budget, there are some alternative options out there to help make sure your will is in good shape. The following steps will walk you through the process.
Step 1: Choose a method
If you’re a newbie at wills and estate plans, you might choose to get a DIY software program that will help you write a successful will.
There are several options on the market. Some of the best-known include LegalZoom, Quicken and Rocket Lawyer. Do your research into each one to see which one fits in your budget and offers all the features you need.
The other option (besides hiring an attorney) is to do it yourself. This can be tricky, though it’s not impossible. If you choose to go this route, you’ll need to educate yourself on the basics of will-writing to make sure you get it right and don’t miss anything important. If you don’t have the time to sink into a DIY will, a will software is a good middle-ground between DIY and attorney. With such a vital document, you don’t want to risk messing it up.
Step 2: Designate your beneficiaries
Think about who in your life you would like to inherit your assets when you die. This will likely be someone in your immediate family, such as a spouse, child, parent or sibling. You may have several different beneficiaries, depending on how many assets you have and your net worth.
If you don’t have much to give, you may choose one or two beneficiaries; if you have a tidy nest egg squirreled away, you may select more beneficiaries to receive money or other assets upon your demise.
When naming beneficiaries, make sure you list them by their full names. Being vague or using a nickname can cause confusion when you die and your executor is working on distributing your assets to your beneficiaries.
One important note is to only designate human family members as beneficiaries. While you might love your dog or cat like a human child, it’s actually not legal to list a pet as a beneficiary. However, you do have the option of creating a trust to help care for your pet after you're gone. You’ll need to name a trusted friend or family member as the pet’s caregiver, and they will be able to access the trust to help pay for the ongoing care of your pet.
Step 3: Name guardians for your children (if you have them)
One important part of your will is naming guardians for your children who will take care of them if you die.
You might have someone in mind already, especially if you have close siblings or your parents are young and healthy. If you don’t, consider whether you would trust anyone in your close friend circle to care for your kids in your absence.
No matter who you name, try to think of a few different options and name them all in order of preference. While you might prefer your sister to raise your kids if you die, she may be unable to do so depending on her financial and familial situation at the time.
You also don’t need to ask permission to appoint someone as a guardian for your children in your will, but it’s a good idea to do so anyway as a courtesy. It would be a huge shock for someone to discover they had been named your child’s guardian after you die without prior warning.
Step 4: Choose your executor
The executor of your will is the person who manages asset distribution after you die to make sure your wishes are met. It’s important to choose someone who is trustworthy and has good attention to detail for this job.
You can choose a family member or friend who you trust to be the executor of your will, but if you don’t have anyone in your life up to the task you can also appoint your attorney or your bank as executor. Going with the latter option means you’ll spend about 2-4% of your assets to have them execute the will, according to U.S. News and World Report.
If you do choose a friend or family member to be the executor, you can designate an amount of money to compensate them for carrying out your wishes. If you have the means to do so, this is a good way to help pay for the large amount of time and work it’ll take your executor to close your estate.
Step 5: Determine who gets what
Now comes the most important part of the will: specifying which of your beneficiaries will receive your assets when you die.
The most important thing to remember is that you need to be very specific when designating your heirs. How do you want to divide your money and belongings between your children? Do you want to leave anything to a sibling or parent? You might be tempted to just leave your estate to your spouse so that they can pass the assets along to their loved ones when they die, but your spouse may have other priorities at that time and neglect to take care of the ones you love the most.
When it comes to belongings, you will have to think long and hard about who you want to inherit them. It’s harder to be equal when leaving belongings to your beneficiaries. The best thing is to discuss your plans with your beneficiaries before you die so they know what to expect when your executor is working through your will.
Step 6: Determine what other documents you need
A will is only one part of a well-rounded estate plan. There’s always the chance you will suffer an accident that leaves you incapacitated rather than dead. In that case, you’ll need a living will that explains who should care for you when you can’t care for yourself. Also look into a power of attorney when writing up your will.
Step 7: Choose your witnesses
Your will needs to be signed by impartial witnesses. The number of witnesses you need depends on the state in which you reside, but most require at least two.
Your witnesses must be at least 18 years of age. If you’re using a lawyer to draw up your estate plan, they can help you find witnesses. If you’re DIY-ing it, look for close friends who you trust but aren’t named as beneficiaries in your will.
Step 8: Find a safe place to keep your will
Your will is a vitally important legal document and you must keep it in a safe and secure place. If you don’t have a fireproof safe at home, consider investing one that you can keep your will and your other valuables in. You can also store it in a safety deposit box if you don’t have room for a safe at home.
Wherever you store it, make sure you let your executor know of its exact location so they know where to look in the event of your death.
Step 9: Review your will regularly
You may not need to make major changes to your will, but it’s still a good idea to review it every few years to make sure it still lists out your wishes. It’s especially important to review it after a major life event, such as marriage, divorce, death of a beneficiary, or birth of a child or grandchild.
Your will is one of the most important legal documents you’ll make. Even though it’s not fun to think of your death, it’s important to make sure your assets go to your loved ones when you die. Whether you pay an attorney to write your will or do it on your own, it’s important to take this step to prepare for the inevitable.