Having a will was always one of those, “I know I should, but…” things. It was easy to procrastinate and basically just forget about it when I was younger. Then I had kids. Suddenly I realized I really ought to figure out how to make a will. I mean, what if something happened to my husband or me — or both of us? Who would take care of our kids? How would they pay for medical bills and summer camp and whatever else? I had some questions, but to be honest, I knew there were probably even more questions that hadn’t even occurred to me yet. So, finally, my husband and I got all adulty and went through with making a will. It wasn’t that hard and, to be honest, it’s great to have one less thing to worry about. If you are also thinking of taking this step, here’s a quick guide on how to make a will.
What is a will?
Your last will and testament is a document listing out who gets what, after you die — everything from bank accounts to property, jewelry, and most importantly: your children.
What if I don’t have a will?
Although the laws vary state by state, there is a condition called “intestacy” by which the state basically makes a will for you and it decides how to divvy up your estate. Distribution tends to be half of your estate goes to the surviving spouse, and half goes to the kids. Maybe that doesn’t sound horrible, but if the parents don’t have joint accounts, and an infant inherits half the money, it will be inaccessible until the child turns eighteen. That means the surviving parent will not be able to use the money (for school, medical bills, extra curriculars, etc.) without a court order. They’d have to go to court and file a petition and plead your case before the court decided to (or not to) give you any of your child’s money. Keep in mind that if you have a joint account the money will go to the surviving spouse, but if you hold any separate properties or accounts, those will be split 50-50.
Some questions to consider:
- Who would be the guardian if there is no surviving spouse? (Keep in mind that guardianship lasts up to age 18.) What if this person is unwilling; do you have a backup?
- Who would be in charge of your children’s money? (Your children’s money should be held in a trust, and the trustee can be the same person or different from the guardian. Money can be subject to supervision to an age beyond 18.)
- Who will become your Power of Attorney (person appointed to maintain your legal and financial matters) in case you become disabled?
- Who will become your health care proxy, for the same reason?
- Who will be your executor (the person who will pay your remaining taxes/debts and then makes sure your assets are distributed accordingly)?
- Make a list of all your assets (from antiques to bank accounts) and decide who will inherit what.
- How do you want your children to be raised? If you have a clear idea, put it into writing for the guardian you have chosen.
Can I do it myself?
Writing a will can be very overwhelming (as emotional as it is daunting). While there are books, software programs, and websites that assist with will preparation, it is a good idea to meet with a family lawyer. Like most aspects of our professional and personal lives, having a one-on-one conversation can help clarify the details. An attorney will help you prioritize what’s most important. However, if you cannot afford an attorney or choose to DIY it, look online for up-to-date books on the subject.
How do I make my will legit?
Your will must clearly state that it is a will, be typed out, then signed and dated by you and two witnesses. Your will doesn’t need to be notarized, but should be stored in a safe place that at least one other person (such as your spouse or a lawyer) knows about.