Creating a will is often a task that everyone knows they should do but it gets put on the back burner. Creating a will is one of the most critical things you can do for your loved ones. Putting your wishes on paper helps your heirs avoid unnecessary hassles, and you gain the peace of mind knowing that a life’s worth of possessions will end up in the right hands. But before for you do, it helps to know the overall process of setting up a will to save you time and money.
What is a will?
A will is simply a legal document in which you, the testator, declare who will manage your estate after you die. Your estate can consist of big, expensive things such as a vacation home but also small items that might hold sentimental value such as photographs. The person named in the will to manage your estate is called the executor because he or she executes your stated wishes. Sometimes though, people get confused by this and aren’t too sure what the meaning of an executor.
A will can also serve to declare who you wish to become the guardian for any minor children or dependents, and who you want to receive specific items that you own – Aunt Sally gets the silver, Cousin Billy the bone china, and so on. Someone designated to receive any of your property is called a “beneficiary.”
Some types of property, including certain insurance policies and retirement accounts, generally aren’t covered by wills. You should’ve listed beneficiaries when you took out the policies or opened the accounts. Check if you can’t remember, and make sure you keep beneficiaries up to date, since what you have on file when you die should dictate who receives those assets.
What happens if I die without a will?
If you die without a valid will, you’ll become what’s called intestate. That usually means your estate will be settled based on the laws of your state that outline who inherits what. Probate is the legal process of transferring the property of a deceased person to the rightful heirs.
Since no executor was named, a judge appoints an administrator to serve in that capacity. An administrator also will be named if a will is deemed to be invalid. All wills must meet certain standards such as being witnessed to be legally valid. Again, requirements vary from state to state.
An administrator will most likely be a stranger to you and your family, and he or she will be bound by the letter of the probate laws of your state. As such, an administrator may make decisions that wouldn’t necessarily agree with your wishes or those of your heirs.
Do I need an attorney to prepare my will?
No, you aren’t required to hire a lawyer to prepare your will, though an experienced attorney can provide useful advice on estate-planning strategies such as establishing testamentary, revocable, and irrevocable trusts. But as long as your will meets the legal requirements of your state, it’s valid whether a lawyer drafted it or you wrote it yourself on the back of a napkin.
Do-it-yourself will kits are widely available online which are of course better than nothing but we usually recommend that our clients at least have an attorney review their will and make sure the specifications in their will match their wishes.
Should my spouse and I have a joint will or separate wills?
Estate planners almost universally advise against joint wills, and some states don’t even recognize them. Odds are you and your spouse won’t die at the same time, and there’s probably property that’s not jointly held. That’s why separate wills make better sense, even though your will and your spouse’s will might end up looking remarkably similar.
In particular, separate wills allow for each spouse to address issues such as ex-spouses and children from previous relationships. Ditto for property that was obtained during a previous marriage. Be very clear about who gets what. Probate laws generally favor the current spouse.
Who should I name as my executor?
You can name your spouse, an adult child, or another trusted friend or relative as your executor. If your affairs are complicated, it might make more sense to name an attorney or someone with legal and financial expertise. You can also name joint executors, such as your spouse or partner and your attorney.
One of the most important things your will can do is empower your executor to pay your bills and deal with debt collectors. Make sure the wording of your will allows for this, and also gives your executor leeway to take care of any related issues that aren’t specifically outlined in your will.
How do I leave specific items to specific heirs?
If you wish to leave certain personal property to certain heirs, indicate as much in your will. In addition, you can create a separate document called a letter of instruction that you should keep with your will.
A letter of instruction, which isn’t legally binding in some states, can be written more informally than a will and can go into detail about which items go to whom. You can also include specifics about any number of things that will help your executor settle your estate including account numbers, passwords and even burial instructions.
Another option is to leave everything to one trusted person who knows your wishes for distributing your personal items. This, of course, is risky because you’re relying on this person to honor your intentions without fail. Consider carefully.
Who has the right to contest my will?
Contesting a will refers to challenging the legal validity of all or part of the document. A beneficiary who feels slighted by the terms of a will might choose to contest it. Depending on which state you live in, so too might a spouse, ex-spouse or child who believes your stated wishes go against local probate laws.
A will can be contested for any number of other reasons: it wasn’t properly witnessed; you weren’t competent when you signed it; or it’s the result of coercion or fraud. It’s usually up to a probate judge to settle the dispute. The key to successfully contesting a will is finding legitimate legal fault with it. A clearly drafted and validly executed will is the best defense.
Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.