Everybody knows that they need to write a Will, but the stats show that only about a third of adults in the US have managed to get it done. Some say it’s the cost that puts people off, others say that it’s finding the time to make an appointment. In our experience of fielding calls through our customer service center, the real issue is that most people have no idea where to start. A very common call we receive is “I know I need to write a Will, what do I do?”. Here we have ten steps to go through to prepare your Will.
1. Choose your approach
You can take one of three approached to write a Will. The cheapest is to use a blank sheet of paper, or a blank form kit, and fill in the blanks explaining what you want to happen to your things after you have died. You can download a blank form off the internet, but it would be a terrible mistake. These seem to be the easiest approach to writing a Will, but are actually the most difficult. Somehow, in the blank spaces you are going to have to accurately express your plans, alternate plans, key appointments, powers to the Executor, and hope that everything you have written complies with your State laws. Most inadmissible Wills are written using blank form kits.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can pay an estate planning lawyer to write a Will for you. You will pay anything from $600 to $1000, and they will enter your information into some software and generate a Will for you. You may be able to ask them for some legal advice, but if your situation is straightforward, you probably won’t need any legal advice. No lawyer writes a Will starting with a blank piece of paper, they collate existing clauses to construct your Will, many law offices have administrative staff do this for them.
The middle ground is using an online interactive service like the one at USLegalWills.com which gives you direct access to Will preparation software. It customizes the document for local laws, and checks your Will for errors. It is very similar to using tax preparation software to file your taxes, and like TurboTax, it’s about one tenth the price of hiring a professional.
2. Name your Executor
The most important appointment you will ever make is your Executor and Trustee. This person has the responsibility to carry out the instructions in the Will. They will have to file your Will with the courts, secure your estate, gather your assets, and distribute them according to the instructions in the Will. They will also have to file taxes and provide accounts to the beneficiaries. It can be a difficult and arduous task, and your appointee must be both trustworthy and capable.
3. Think about charitable donations
According to research, about 80% of people are charitable in their lifetime, but less than 5% leave a charitable gift in their Will. This is a curious statistic because charitable giving from your estate can have the most impact for the least effort. You can leave either a specific gift, or a percentage of your estate. Some people decide to leave, say, 5% of their estate to a charity of choice. This has minimal impact to your beneficiaries who still receive the remaining 95%, but can amount to a bequest of tens of thousands of dollars to a charity – far more than you would likely give as a donation while you are alive.
4. Think of the distribution of your estate
When most people think “I need to write a Will” they are thinking about it in the context of the distribution of their estate; who will receive what. This also relates to one of the key excuses for not preparing a Will “it is obvious who will receive my things anyway”. This is a remarkable assumption because every State in the US has a different plan for your estate if you die without a Will.
I also find it strange when people try to work through the intestate distribution rules, rather than just prepare a Will. All doubt is removed, the control is put back into your hands, and your assets (bank accounts and possessions) go to the people who you believe, should receive them.
5. Consider your digital assets
Over the last few years there has been increasing focus on the idea of digital assets when you write a Will. These are your online accounts that either need to have a beneficiary named for sentimental reasons e.g. your online photo storage, but also your online assets that can have real financial value. You should think about naming beneficiaries for your domain names, blogs, bitcoin, online gambling, or any other revenue generating sites. It is also important to pass on login information for other accounts like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter just so that the accounts can be closed down at the appropriate time.
6. Name guardians for your children
If you have young children, it is important to know who will take care of these children if something were to happen to both parents. You can name guardians for your children when you write a Will. It is often a difficult decision and one that should follow a discussion with your family. Do you name the person will the financial means to care for your children, or do you go with the person who has the most closely aligned values. Is it important to you that your children continue to live in your neighbourhood, or would family always be preferred over friends? There are many factors to consider when appointing guardians.
7. Consider your alternate plans
The most significant mistake you will likely make if you write a Will using a blank form kit is the handling of contingency plans. What happens if your first choice beneficiary, Executor or guardian pre-deceases you, or is involved in a common accident with you? You must always include an “alternate” or backup plan just in case your wishes cannot be carried out.
8. Sign and witness your document
Once you have stepped through a service like the one at USLegalWills.com you will have a completed document. But to make that your legal Will, it must be signed in the presences of two independent witnesses who have nothing to gain from the contents of the Will. There is no requirement to have the document signed by a lawyer or notarized. Once it is signed and witnessed by two adults, it then becomes a fully legal Last Will and Testament.
9. You’ve managed to write a Will – now what?
One very common question that we receive at USLegalWills.com is “my father did write a Will, but we cannot find it, what do we do?” Unfortunately, if you write a Will and nobody can find it, then you may as well not have gone to the trouble of preparing it. You should store the document in a place that is known and accessible to your Executor. Some people just hand the document to their Executor in a sealed envelope and this guards against the loss of the document in a house fire or flood. The decision on where to store the document is a personal one, but you must make sure that it can be found when it is needed.
At USLegalWills.com we have a few services to help with this including the Executor Tool – MyLifeLocker. A service that sends messages posthumously – MyMessages. And a service that insures that you get the right information to the right people at the right time – our Keyholder™ mechanism.
10. Communicate with your loved ones
There are so many decisions that you have made when you write a Will, that you really don’t want to spring a surprise on your loved ones. For example, you should let people know who you have appointed as the guardian for your children, and also if possible, explain to people who have not been appointed. If you decided to leave some of your estate to charity, it is a good idea to explain this to your main beneficiaries and let them know why this was an important thing for you to do. When you write a Will, you want it to go through the probate process without a hitch, and the best way to do this is to be as transparent as possible while preserving your privacy.
If you are thinking of writing a Will and not sure where to start, these ten steps will hopefully get you there.
Tim Hewson is one of the founders of USLegalWills.com.
He has over 20 years of experience helping people to write their Will and other estate planning documents. He has been interviewed by many of the major news media outlets, and has contributed to articles in The New York Times, NY Metro Parents, U.S. News & World Report, and other leading publications. He has also contributed to a number of financial planning books.
Throughout his career, Tim has written extensively on the subject of Will writing and estate planning.
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