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How to Make a Will
1. Decide what to include in your will.
It's time to think specifically about your belongings, savings and estate. Go ahead and pull together the paperwork for your home and any other real estate you own, along with life insurance policies, bank and retirement accounts.
Do you have a car, beloved pet Fido or rare book collection that you would want to go to a specific person? Include it in your will. This will help your executor when it's time to distribute your assets and takes out the headache for your family members.
2. Be specific about where all of your stuff goes.
This isn't a time for general estimates. Where do you want to see it all go, and to who? Think about your spouse, your children and extended family. Drill down into your assets to decide who gets (or takes care of) what.
If you're happy with it all going to your spouse to handle as they see fit, that's fine. But a will gives you the chance to decide what (and how much) other loved ones will get too.
And remember: If you own a home with your spouse or someone else, the property automatically goes to the other person named in the title. So a will can't overrule who gets the property-unless the deeds to it have changed too. The same rule applies to the beneficiaries of any life insurance policies and your IRA or company 401(k) accounts.
3. Select your beneficiaries.
Next up, you'll put down the names of the beneficiaries-the people who will get your assets. Like we said, if your spouse is still living you may just leave everything to them. But if neither of you is around, how would you divide up your assets and estate?
You could leave an equal percentage or set dollar amount to each of your children. You could decide to leave a chunk to charity, and there could be special items you want to leave to certain people-like that vintage train set your kid always wanted to push around the living room growing up. Whatever these decisions are, now is the time to record them.
4. Choose an executor for your will.
The executor is the person who reads your will and sees that your wishes are carried out. They'll handle all those special giftings (like your pet or the train set) and use the funds in your estate to take care of paying any debts you have left.
Your executor should be a level-headed, ethical and responsible person you trust-someone who isn't intimidated by strong-willed family members! You may want to choose one of your adult children, a family friend or an attorney to take on the job. Attorneys are usually paid to do this out of the funds in the estate, and each state has specific laws about how to handle their fee.
5. Name guardians for your children.
If you have children who are minors, you'll need to name their guardians in your will. These are the folks who will take charge of your most important legacy-your kids-when you're gone.
Guardians should be people you trust, and you should talk to whoever you're considering before you make this decision. Some people even set aside money for the guardians to help with taking on the responsibility and expense of another person (or more) joining their household.
And don't forget to give the guardians access and authority to work with any insurance or savings accounts you've set up for your kids (like a college fund or an account for their first car). That way you know the money is going toward the things it's meant for.
6. Sign your will in front of witnesses.
This is the important bit! A written will is not valid unless it's signed and dated by the one writing the will (yep, that's you) and two witnesses.
Your witnesses can't be people who could inherit anything from your will, or they'll be disqualified. And they should know you quite well because after you die, they could be called to appear in court to confirm they saw you sign your will.
A way for your witnesses to avoid a trip to court is by making a "self-proving affidavit," which is required by some states. This is a notarized document that confirms your witnesses saw you sign the will (and that you signed it willingly and in your right mind). It acts as their testimony and means if your will ends up in court for any reason, they won't need to appear.
7. Let everyone know beforehand.
It's a good idea to alert everyone involved and included in your will ahead of time. For the executor and guardians, get their permission before tagging them with these responsibilities. They need to be capable (and willing) to take them on.
And remove the mystery of what's in your will by letting your beneficiaries know what's coming their way before you're gone. Trust us: Taking away the element of surprise could save some heartache for them later on. It's peace of mind for everyone involved-especially you.
8. Store your will in a legacy drawer.
We recommend you put together a legacy drawer to store your will and other important documents. This can be a waterproof and fireproof file box or folder that holds the documents your family would need if something happened to you.
Your legacy drawer should contain the original version of your will (signed and witnessed), estate plans, insurance policies, bank account details and passwords, tax returns, funeral instructions and anything else you think your family will need to know.
9. Update your will as needed.
Once you've made a will, you can revisit and update it as your life changes. Because life happens-you could move to another state, have more children, go through a divorce and remarry, or someone in your family might pass away. Even if you don't think it needs updating, it's a good idea to read over your will every few years anyway-just to refresh your memory.
2. Select your beneficiaries.
When you die, someone is going to receive your money, your house and other belongings. You probably won't have to think long about the beneficiaries you designate, but it's key to ensure that who you select is up-to-date. If you go with a legal online site, there will be a place to identify beneficiaries on the last will and testament form; if you have an attorney, he or she will write your will for you.
3. Choose the executor for your will.
This person will be tasked with making sure the wishes in your will are carried out, so you'll want to choose someone who is responsible. You may end up choosing your bank or an attorney as your executor, in which case you can expect to spend 2 to 4 percent of your estate's assets. If you're designating a family member or friend, experts still say they should be compensated, either through an hourly rate or a percentage of assets. After all, closing an estate can be an arduous task.
4. Pick a guardian for your kids.
Do you need to get permission from your friend or family member before appointing them as guardian? No, you do not, according to experts. But if you don't, consider naming three guardians in order of your preference, advises Tara Wilson, an estate planning attorney who practices in Andover, Massachusetts. "Not everyone will be in a position to take on such a role at that time," she says. It's also a wise idea to name people to take over guardianship if, say, a couple watching your kids were to die or divorce, she adds.
5. Be specific about who gets what.
Do not be vague in your will. Do not hope that everyone will know what you want. This can be especially tricky when you've had multiple children, and you have your children and stepchildren in the mix.
Patrick Simasko, an elder law attorney and wealth preservation specialist at Simasko Law in Mount Clemens, Michigan, puts it this way: You may leave your estate to your third wife and hope that when she passes away, your children will inherit your money. While that may seem sound, Simasko says that it won't work out that way if you give all of your money to that third wife. In that scenario, she would inherit the bulk of your assets and she may want to leave it to her kids. And that would be her legal right, Simasko adds. "You have to realize, when she gets the estate it is hers and she can do whatever she wants with the money," Simasko says.
This doesn't mean you can't fashion your will so that your third wife and your children are taken care of, but that's why an attorney who knows what he or she is doing is so important.
6. Be realistic about who gets what.
Even if you're determined to fairly distribute your assets, it still isn't easy, points out Brian Decker, a financial planner and founder of Decker Retirement Planning Inc., with offices in Washington, California and Utah.
"Let's say you have three piano-playing children and one piano. You cannot divide that equally. Nor can you divide your car, home, jewelry and artwork," Decker says. Your estate could sell the assets, like your house and car, he says. Still, rather than striving for making everything completely equal, Decker recommends talking to your heirs about your assets.
"This is where you call or email your children and let them know that you are not going to be around forever and if they have their eye on anything other than house and cars, to let you know so that you can write that down and make sure they get that item when you pass. Now your kids can't be victims and say that the distribution was not fair. They had a chance to speak up," Decker says. He offers up examples of items your kids may be crushed if you put in writing that you want sold, like your wedding dress or fishing gear.
7. If there's more you want to say, attach a letter to the will.
In television shows and movies, there's often a reading of the will where heirs come together and hear who will receive what. That doesn't often happen in real life, though some estate planners report that clients attach personal letters sometimes as a way to say goodbye and make your wishes clear and personal.
8. Other people need to sign the will.
You will need witnesses to sign your will, and in many states, the witnesses can't be people who stand to inherit anything in the will. Your witnesses also need to be at least 18 years old. Ideally, they'll be people who are likely to be around when you aren't. If something goes wrong, and your will is contested in court, the judge may want to call a witness to testify. In most states, you'll need two witnesses; in Vermont, you'll need three.
9. Find a place for your will.
Don't write a will and then put it somewhere it will be forgotten. What if the worst happens? You don't want family members wondering if you wrote a will and then not be able to find it. 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. It's also a good idea to store the original copy somewhere secure, like in a fireproof safe.
[Read: The Tipping Point: When Should You Write Your First Will?]
10. Review and update your will.
After drawing up your will, you'll also want to work on a power of attorney and a living will in case you're ever incapacitated. You'll also want to update your will, especially after any major life event, such as a marriage, divorce or a birth. Otherwise, you may find that you've left your assets to your ex-spouse, and none of your money and belongings are left to your children. Make sure to revisit and update the document every few years to reflect any necessary changes after any significant life event to ensure your personal belongings are distributed according to your wishes.
Why Making a Will Is Important
Making a will is important because it's one of the last things you can do for your family after you're gone. At a time when they're grieving your loss, it makes the management of your assets clear for everyone involved-minus the stress (and expense) of fighting in court. If you die without a will, there's no guarantee your wishes will be known or followed.
And what about your wishes if you're still alive but can't communicate because of health reasons? That's when having a financial and medical power of attorney comes in. It gives someone you trust the power to speak on your behalf if you can't speak for yourself. Together with your will, a medical power of attorney gives you a voice when you need it most.