Filling out forms and paperwork is about as much fun as a trip to the dentist. And making a will seems to be as appealing as a root canal, because 57% of American adults don’t have one! 1
But writing a will can be simple (and pain-free). The truth is, your loved ones are depending on you to make one—and will be thankful you did. So, if you’re in the 57% at the moment, there’s still time to hop on over to the right side of that number.
How do you actually make a will, though? Scribble something down on a Post-it? Not quite, but it’s pretty straightforward and won’t break the bank.
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.
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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.
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Make these 7 decisions before you create your will and take the headache out of the process.
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.
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.
Do You Need a Lawyer to Make a Will?
Making a will is easier than you think, and if your estate is a modest one you can probably skip the attorney (hooray . . . no hourly rates!).
But there are some situations when you might need their help. Let’s say you have a large estate and are thinking of putting it in a trust, have assets in a different country, or want to remove someone from your will: this is when an attorney could prove useful.
If you’re looking to create a simple will to take care of the basics like your property, children, investments and personal items—then you can do it online. With the required signatures, a will made online is just as legal as one produced by a lawyer.
Making a Will Online
An easy and cost-effective way to make a will is to do it online. You’ll fill in your information and go through the process to create a will tailored to you. A good online service will also give you the chance to set up your durable powers of attorney at the same time as you write your will—something we recommend you do.
Making a will protects those you love at a time when they’re grieving for you. You can create your will today and leave a legacy of intentionality and generosity for your family.