No matter your age or economic status, planning a will is one of the most important estate planning steps you can take. If you pass away without having a will in place, your estate—your money, home, and assets—will be divided up according to state law. If you have particular wishes or recipients for each of those assets, a will can ensure they go to the right person.
“It will never hurt to have a will that states your wishes,” explained Sam Patel of Patel & Dalrymple, PLLC. “More practically, people often make a will after a major life event—marriage, buying a house, having a child. These are just a few examples of things that might make your wishes change, and it can help to update your estate plan accordingly.”
Determine Your Executor
One of the first steps toward creating a will is determining who the executor of your will and estate will be. This executor will act as your personal representative and will be in charge of handling the details of your will. This person should be someone you implicitly trust. You should talk with this person ahead of time to ensure they are up to the task, and then let them know where to find all important documents, such as your will, insurance policies, and passwords for important financial accounts.
“Consider discussing your estate plan with your family after you’ve put it in place,” said Keith Orgera of the Law Offices of Ron Feinman. “Generally, it is far better for your loved ones to know what is going to happen when you die rather than to get surprises after it happens. Talking to everyone in advance, while not a fun conversation, can avoid a lot of hurt feelings and squabbling after you’re gone.”
Ask the Important Questions
“I would suggest one decision and one question,” said Orgera. “It’s important to decide what you want to accomplish with your will. They are powerful instruments and can do many things. Knowing what you want the will to make happen is more important than who exactly will be your executor or who gets the Buick. Related to that is the question: ‘Is a will the best way to achieve what I want?’ Once you know what you’re trying to do, you can talk with your estate planner about the best way to accomplish it and how.”
Once you have your will in place, it’s important to make sure it continues to reflect your current wishes. Consider updating your will once a year, making sure to update it after marriages, divorces, births, deaths, and other life events.
Look at the Bigger Picture
“A will is just one component of an estate plan,” explained Peter Davies of Davies & Davies Law Firm. “An estate plan should address powers of attorney, advance medical directives, wills, beneficiary designations, tax planning, and possibly trusts, among other things. An estate plan should be in place for someone when they have kids, get married or divorced, have a blended family, have tax concerns, have health issues, and so on. A good estate plan addresses many aspects, not death alone.”
While a will is a powerful document that can enact your final wishes, it doesn’t necessarily accomplish everything. A legal professional can help you evaluate the details that fall outside of a will and help you put together a more comprehensive estate plan that covers the entirety of what you’ve worked hard to save or build.
Hire a Professional
Some things are too important to leave up to chance. A poorly drafted will can be worse than no will at all. Often, self-prepared wills aren’t signed and finalized correctly. For example, a self-prepared will could have an executor or family members who are listed as beneficiaries, who also signed on as witnesses. That could either invalidate the witness to your will or prevent the witness from receiving any benefit under the will.
“This isn’t a time to DIY,” furthered Davies. “A comprehensive estate plan assembled by an attorney specializing in estate planning can go a long way to prevent a mess.”
An attorney will help you sort through the maze of estate planning so you can feel confident that your final wishes will be fully enacted.
“A lot of things can pass outside of a will; sometimes the entirety of a person’s property,” said Patel. “This can be beneficial in some circumstances, to avoid probate taxes and costs, or to avoid public scrutiny of a probated will. This is something to discuss with your beneficiaries, and with your attorney. There are lots of ways to pass on your belongings, and it’s always good to know your options.”