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By Thomas Muellner
They say that the only two things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. And while it’s easy to look past the former given the distractions, joys and struggles of everyday life, the reality is that one day or another, everybody’s time will come.
Whether that time is a day or many decades away, having a formal will in place can provide comfort to your family and ensure your final wishes are carried out.
Unfortunately, data suggest that more than half of all Americans still have not taken the important step of creating a formal will or final testament, putting their families at risk of paying a heavy toll, both financially and emotionally. Though it’s naturally a difficult subject, there’s little debate: writing a will is a smart money move.
When thinking about wills, it’s easy to drift to the Hollywood-style portrayal of a stodgy lawyer droning through a long list of assets while grieving family members gather around, or the father on his last breath who’s scribbling down how he’d like to divide up his property before he meets his end. In reality, the process of writing and executing a will is far less dramatic.
For many middle-class Americans with standard assets and family structures, creating a will is easy and inexpensive. In most cases, online legal tools and software programs make it possible to set up a basic will for less than $100. With these tools, you answer guided questions about your finances and how you’d like to disburse your assets once you’ve passed. Once you’ve finished making your will online, you sign it and the output is a binding legal document (but there may be local or state rules requiring witnesses; see "Witnesses, executors and local guidelines" section below).
On the other hand, if you’ve got a more complex financial situation, own a wide variety of assets or want to be extra cautious about avoiding unnecessary estate taxes, it’s probably in your best interest to consultant an attorney to guide you through the process.
But when should you start making a will?
Every adult can and should create a personal will; however, it’s typically considered more important to have one in place if you’ve built up sizable personal assets or if you’ve had a child.
Regardless of the route you choose, one of the core aspects of writing a will is outlining all of the assets you plan to pass on to loved ones. Everything from your home to the golf clubs collecting dust in your closet is fair game.
As you start the process of drafting a will, take a moment to reflect, independently or with your spouse, and take an inventory of the physical and financial assets you possess. Include details such as serial numbers, appraised values and account details to ensure there’s no ambiguity.
This makes it easier to distribute your assets and leaves less up to chance. When an asset is unaccounted for, there’s often a gray area about how it’s to be divided among the family, which can lead to turmoil and additional legal fees.
One of the biggest challenges families face when executing a will is ambiguity. Because of this, it’s often best to over-communicate. For example, if you've got a daughter or niece who you'd like to bequeath a family heirloom to, make sure it's stated explicitly. Conversely, if there’s an individual who you’d like to be excluded from receiving an inheritance, it’s important to state that as well. In certain cases, an omission may be interpreted as a mistake, which could lead that individual to challenge the will in court.
By the same token, you should keep beneficiaries of retirement accounts and insurance policies up to date – or name beneficiaries if you haven’t already. Doing so is another way of ensuring that correct individuals are spoken for after you’ve passed away.
Wills are binding legal documents, and specific requirements about how they’re witnessed and executed vary by state. Because of this, you may need as many as two neutral witnesses before your will can be finalized.
You’ll also need to specify an executor of your will. This is a person who manages the disbursement of assets and represents your interests in any legal proceedings. Due to the sensitive nature of this process, experts often recommend this role be filled by a trusted friend or colleague who’s not directly benefited by your estate.
If you have specific concerns about local or state guidelines when drafting your will, it’s wise to consultant an attorney in the area.
Creating a will is an important first step, but it’s only the beginning. When your personal finances and relationships with loved ones change, make sure your will follows accordingly. As a rule of thumb, it’s good to review your last testament every 3 to 5 years, or after a major life event, such as the birth of a grandchild or the passing of a loved one.
By taking just a small bit of time to create a will, you can be sure you’re leaving the best situation possible for your loved ones and get back to focusing on what matters most: family.