You’ve seen it in every kind of movie from horror to comedy. A grieving family gathers around a lawyer’s desk for the reading of the will.
In most of those movies, a greedy young adult is after an older relative’s wealth (think Knives Out). Or the will forces an heir to change their bad behavior to get the inheritance like in Easy Money.
But those Hollywood wills aren’t like wills in real life.
Normal people don’t use their will to manipulate friends and family. Which is good because that’s not what a will is for. And it isn’t just for rich people either.
But if it isn’t for crazy rich people or fixing families, then what is a will for? Better question: What is a will?
What Is a Will?
There are several types of wills, but they all boil down to the same basic thing. A will—or last will and testament—is a signed, legally binding document that describes exactly how you want your assets (like property, bank accounts and other things you own) to be handled after you die.
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This can be something as big as dividing the family farm among five siblings or something small, like making sure your nephew gets the pocketknife he admires.
A will also lets you appoint guardians for children under 18 or adult children with special needs. That means you have the power to choose someone you trust to love and protect your kids when they need it most.
And that’s exactly what a will is: protection for the people and things you love most.
They’re protected because you planned ahead—which also gives you peace of mind. You can feel calm and confident about the future, because you know your loved ones won’t have to deal with all the crazy things that can happen if you die without a will.
What Should a Will Cover?
Of course, a will only protects your family and gives you peace of mind if all the right pieces are there. So it’s important to make sure that you include at least four things:
Writing down your wishes only matters if there’s someone to make sure they get carried out. That’s what your executor—also called a personal representative—does. They’ll read the will and handle all other end-of-life business the way you wanted.
You might hire a lawyer to do this if your will is complicated, but many people simply choose a level-headed, honest relative. An adult child or close family friend will do. Just talk to them first, so they aren’t blindsided by the responsibility.
Beneficiaries are the people who will get your stuff. They’re usually immediate family members, but you can also name extended relatives, good friends, charities you support or anyone else you want.
If you’re married, you could name your spouse as the sole beneficiary, but it’s good to have a backup plan in case your spouse passes away first.
Things get more complicated when you have kids, especially in a blended family. It’s a good idea to tell them exactly who gets what to avoid any confusion or resentment.
If you don’t, they could end up in a years-long feud over your favorite pizza tin or your lawn mower. (Yes, those are real examples, and no, your family won’t handle the situation any better once grief gets thrown into the mix.)
And if you’re single without kids, consider which family members, friends or charities you’d like to give your things to. (Just don’t name your pet—as much as you love Fluffy, a cat doesn’t need your condo.)
This part of your will spells out what each beneficiary gets.
For money, you can set aside a percentage or a dollar amount for each of them. For personal items, give as many details as you need to make sure the right item goes to the right person.
If you’re giving your favorite watch to your closest cousin, describe the watch and name the cousin. Otherwise, your executor may give them the wrong watch—or they might give the right watch to the wrong person.
When you’re choosing what to give to whom, remember: There’s no wrong answer. It’s all up to you! So take your time, think it through and leave your assets to people you think will truly treasure them.
If your children are minors or have a lifelong disability, your will should specify who will take care of them when you’re gone.
It should go without saying, but here it is anyway: Talk with the guardians you’d like to choose before naming them in your will! You don’t want to spring the emotional and financial burden of caring for your children on an unsuspecting loved one.
And you definitely don’t want to place your children in the wrong hands. This decision shouldn’t be taken lightly, so make sure to think and talk it over first.
You should also talk to beneficiaries about pet care. Pets are easier to take on than kids, but they’re still a big responsibility. Ask if your beneficiaries are able and willing to take care of Fido—don’t just assume they are!
What DOESN’T a Will Cover?
A will can tell your family what to do with everything from your checking account to the kitchen sink, but there are still some things it can’t control. Here are some assets that are handled separately from your will:
- Retirement Funds: Your company 401(k) or IRA accounts will name beneficiaries in the original documents.
- Life Insurance Policies: The beneficiaries for your life insurance are also taken care of separately from your will.
- Joint Tenancy Assets: If you and someone else (like your spouse) hold a joint title to anything (like a house, bank account or vehicle), ownership automatically passes to the survivor.
If you want to change the beneficiaries for these assets, contact the fund, insurance or title companies directly. Changing your will won’t make these documents change too. Instead, your will should reflect what these other documents already say.
Even though your will won’t override the original documents or joint title, it can (and should) tell your loved ones where to find those documents so they can access the rest of your assets. In this case, your will is like a treasure map leading your loved ones where they need to go.
Do I Get a Will?
Now that you understand what a will really is, you’ve probably realized it isn’t anything like what you see in the movies. It isn’t about riches, greed or forcing people to change. It’s about loving your family enough to plan ahead.
Because the reality is, unexpected things do happen. And the best way to protect your loved ones is to have instructions in writing before then.
The good news is, you can make a legitimate, legally binding will that meets all the requirements in your state—and you can do it from the comfort and convenience of home.
Start enjoying the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re protecting the people you love. Create your online will today.