At some point, we’ve all gotta go. When you die, the last thing you want to do is leave your grieving friends and family with a bunch of legal issues to battle during an already-awful time. That’s why, even if it’s unpleasant to think about right now, you need a last will and testament for after you’re gone.
What Is a Will?
A will (or “last will and testament”) is a document that spells out what should happen to your assets after you die. It also designates guardianship of your children (and ownership of your pets), so even if you don’t own a bunch of property or have a bunch of assets, it’s a good idea to have a will. There are a couple of basic options for creating one:
Do It Yourself Using a Template
If your situation is simple (you don’t have many assets), you can write your own will for free. You can browse templates online and completely do this yourself, or you can use a service like RocketLawyer or Willing (using a service is a better option).
These (often free) tools will ask you questions about who gets your assets, how you’d like to be buried, and any final wishes you might have. From there, they will generate a document that needs to be signed by two witnesses and yourself. You don’t need to have it notarized, either. You can just print and file. Of course, you want to let your loved ones know where they can find your will (more on that below), but according to Nolo, this is really all you need to do to create a legally binding will.
Even if you don’t have a complicated situation, it’s probably best to at least use a free service like Willing, RocketLawyer, or LegalZoom to help you with the process. As LegalZoom points out, these services typically consider state probate laws. If you don’t know those laws and write your will without any help whatsoever, it might not even be valid considering your state’s guidelines. If you have more complex circumstances, some of these services will charge you between $10-$200.
Retaining an Attorney
There are some drawbacks to the DIY route, though. As former Lifehacker writer Melanie Pinola put it:
Three DIY will-making products—LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Quicken WillMaker Plus—were evaluated on a number of quality measures by a law school professor who specializes in estates and trusts. He found that all three produced wills that are better than having no will at all and can be good for thinking about estate planning…but there were problems inherent with all of the DIY products if you have anything but very simple will-making needs. For example, two had outdated information. Also, some specific tax and trust issues couldn’t be handled by the software… If you have dependents, special tax issues, want to address digital assets, or just want to make sure your will is as comprehensive as can be, your best bet is to consult a lawyer.
And hiring a lawyer might not be as expensive as you think. A basic will might only run you $100 to $150. However, if you have a complicated set of circumstances or significant assets, you might pay up to $5,000. You’re not just paying to have someone do the work for you, though. You’re paying an expert who stays up-to-date on changing laws and guidelines, so you have peace of mind that your estate planning is solid.
What to Expect When You Draft Your Will
Whether you DIY or go with an expert, putting together a will involves a few simple steps:
Pick an executor: This is the person who handles your property, assets, and everything else after you die. They won’t have control until after you go, but at that time, a probate court will give them power. Obviously, you want this person to be someone you trust to handle your affairs, maybe your spouse or one of your children.
Designate your beneficiaries: The people who will inherit your assets — everything from your retirement savings to your collection to Garbage Pail cards — are called beneficiaries, and you want to designate them for everything you own. If you have pets, they’re considered property in your will, and you’ll designate who will inherit them, too. (Keep in mind, though, beneficiaries are not legally required to take care of pets, so you want to clear this with the person beforehand).
Be specific. If you want to leave specific jewelry or clothing, like an old wedding gown, for someone in your family, make sure to include that level of detail in your will. And if there’s someone in your family you want to make sure doesn’t receive anything, experts say you should detail that, too. As one estate planning attorney told U.S. News:
“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.”
Choose a guardian: If you have children, you’ll also designate who you want to have guardianship when you die. You’re not required to get permission from that person, but it should go without saying that you’ll want to check with that person first. That person does not legally have to accept guardianship, and if they don’t, the court will choose a new guardian.
Add a letter: If you want to say something to your loved ones after you die, write a “last letter” and attach it to your will.
Get witnesses to sign your will: Finally, in order for your will to be legally binding, you need witnesses. Usually, this means you need two signatures from people who aren’t listed as beneficiaries. A notary might be the best person for this, although it’s not required.
Death is the most natural thing, yet it seems surreal, which is why most of us don’t bother… Read more Once you’ve actually written your will, make sure to file it away somewhere safe and make sure your executor (or someone else you trust) knows where to find it when the time comes. U.S. News suggests: 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. Finally, make sure to update your will every few years. Maybe the laws have changed, maybe your beneficiaries have changed, or maybe you have new assets that need to be figured out. Whatever the case, your will should be updated every now and then.
Write a “Last Letter” When You Write Your Will
Where to Stash Your Will
Death is the most natural thing, yet it seems surreal, which is why most of us don’t bother…
Once you’ve actually written your will, make sure to file it away somewhere safe and make sure your executor (or someone else you trust) knows where to find it when the time comes. U.S. News suggests:
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.
Finally, make sure to update your will every few years. Maybe the laws have changed, maybe your beneficiaries have changed, or maybe you have new assets that need to be figured out. Whatever the case, your will should be updated every now and then.