Do you have a will? That is, do you have a legal document that outlines your wishes regarding the distribution of your property after your death? The document should also spell out other important considerations like the legal care of your minor children upon your passing. Between one-half and two-thirds of American adults don't have a will. But do you need one? The answer is a resounding yes if you answer yes to any of the questions below:
- Do you care who gets your property if you die?
- Do you care who gets your money if you die?
- Do you care who is appointed the guardian of your minor children if you die?
Who Needs a Will?
Wills are not just for the rich and wealthy. Regardless of how much or how little money you have, a will ensures your wishes are heard. It states that whatever personal belongings and assets you have will go to family or the beneficiaries you name or designate. If you own a business, a will can help ensure a smooth legal transition of those assets.
Beyond your property and personal belongings, if you have minor children, a will is a must. A will ensures that you get to choose your children's legal guardian should you pass before your children are of legal adult age.
Through a will, you can also name what is known as an executor, or the person you trust to have the authority to ensure that your wishes are carried out and to ensure that all of your affairs are in order from paying off bills to canceling credit cards.
Without a will, a court makes these decisions on your behalf, among others, through a lengthy and often stressful process called probate. Few people plan to die, but if you die suddenly without a will, you will inadvertently subject your family and loved ones to unnecessary confusion and anxiety at what is already a difficult time.
Do You Need a Lawyer?
For most people, a will is easy to produce. It can be prepared using legal software such as Quicken Willmaker Plus—Nolo Press, costing about $69 at the lowest (2020 version)—which also helps you create a Living Will, Living Trust, Bypass Trust, Financial Power of Attorney, and other important legal forms. If you have a more complicated estate, or you're not comfortable using software for the more complicated documents, you should consult an estate attorney who may also work with a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or financial planner.
How Do You Get Started?
At a minimum, a will at any stage in your life should do the following: appoint a guardian if you have minor children, appoint an executor to administer your will when you die, and spell out specifically how you want your property distributed.
The first step in deciding how you want your property distributed is gathering information. You'll need the following for anyone named is your will—such as children, spouse, proposed guardians, the executor, and other beneficiaries:
- Birth dates
You will also need to keep some records of amounts of all debts, including mortgages, car loans, student loans, business loans, and credit card accounts.
A list of assets, including detailed information about the following:
- Real estate
- Savings (bank accounts, CDs, money markets)
- Investments (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs)
- 401(k), IRA, pension/retirement accounts
- Life insurance policies and annuities
- Ownership interest in a business
- Cars, boats, planes and other vehicles
- Any valuable personal property
Of course, you should also keep copies of existing wills, trusts, divorce decrees, prenuptial agreements, and any other legal documents that might affect your will. If you decide to create your will yourself—using software like Willmaker—you can sit down in front of your computer with all of the above information. In a few hours, you will produce a will that is legal in your state. If you feel more comfortable having a lawyer do it, you'll need to be prepared to take the above and perhaps other information with you to your appointment.
As life changes, it is also best to revisit your last will periodically or upon certain major life events. Revisiting this document helps to ensure that your will still reflects your desires. Last but not least, the best of wills won't be any good if nobody knows how to find it. Make sure your family members and your executor know where your will is kept.