We know—nobody wants to talk about making a will. It makes us uncomfortable, slightly superstitious and maybe even a little queasy. So we dodge the topic left and right and put off making a will yet again.
But here you are, reading about wills (even though it gives you an eerie feeling in the pit of your stomach). You’ve already made it this far and we’re proud of you. So take a deep breath—we’re about to answer everything you wanted to know (but were afraid to ask) about wills.
1. What is a will?
Simply put, a will is a legally binding document that explains exactly how you want your property and other belongings to be handled after your death. We know—it’s not comfortable talking about this kind of thing. But as creepy as you might feel, making a will is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your family.
2. What’s the difference between a living trust and will?
A living trust and a will might seem similar in the way they work, but they’re different. A will tells everyone how you want the stuff you own to be handled after you die. A living trust holds your assets while you’re still living.
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A living trust never becomes a public document like a will does after you die. So if you want to keep everything private, a living trust protects that information, even after you’re gone. It can also help you skip out on probate costs (that’s the legal court process that handles giving out everything in the will). Any property given through a will has to go through probate, but not if it’s given through a trust! Keep in mind, though, a living trust can’t name a guardian for your children (in other words, someone who will look after them if you die)—only a will can do that.
3. Why do I need a will?
You might think you don’t need a will because you’re not a millionaire, you’re not sitting on a massive piece of land, or you don’t have family members who are vultures and want to claw their way into your estate. But guess what? You need a will, no matter who you are.
If you have children who are under 18, then you really need a will. Your will is where you’ll have all the information about who their guardians will be. If you don’t make a will—who will take care of your kids if something happens to you and your spouse? Don’t leave a decision like that in that hands of anyone else but you (especially not the state!).
And what about that one-of-a-kind watch your great-grandpa gave you? You want to make sure something like that stays in the family. Having a will in place lets you say exactly who gets what. If you don’t take care of it now, someone else will get to decide where your kids, pets and family heirlooms end up.
4. What if I haven’t had kids yet?
So you think that since you don’t have kids yet, it’s not important to make a will? False. We just said it, but it’s worth repeating: Everybody needs a will! Even if it’s just you and your dog living in a one-bedroom apartment. Who would take Rover if something happened to you? And if you do have kids later on down the road or a niece you adore, you can update your will to include them.
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5. Do I have to make a new will if I move between states?
Nope. Most states across America will honor a will that was signed in a different state. But if you do plan on moving, it’s smart to double-check the laws in your new state and update your will if necessary.
6. Do I have to get a will notarized?
You always need two witnesses to make a will valid, but you don’t always need it notarized (check the laws of your state). Getting a document notarized just means that a public officer (called a notary public) will make sure the person signing the document is who they say they are.
Some states want a document (called a self-proving affidavit) from the witnesses stating they saw you sign the will or saw someone sign it for you at your request. This document also proves you were in your right mind and signed everything willingly. Having this in place saves a lot of time in probate (remember, this is just the legal court process that takes care of giving out everything in the will).
A little note about your witnesses, though—make sure you’re aren’t leaving anything to them in your will (because they won’t get whatever it is!). A witness can’t receive anything from the will they are witnessing. So skip asking your daughter (who’s getting your house in the will) to be your witness and instead ask a trusted coworker or family friend.
7. Can I change or cancel my will?
Absolutely! This thing isn’t set in stone. Nothing is permanent until you’ve passed away. You can add or remove things at any time. Once you do, you’ll sign a new will that says the old one is no longer valid. After you sign the new will, be sure to securely get rid of your old will (shred the sucker). And if you gave copies to anyone else, be sure you’re the one who shreds those too. This way, there won’t be any confusion over which one is the right will.
And if you want to “cancel” your will, you can. All that means is you’re destroying your old will (you know, shredding it) and making a new one.
8. When should I update my will?
You need to update your will anytime your wishes change or after some kind of life event (like getting married, bringing home a brand-new baby, etc.). And you may need to update your will after any kind of unpleasant life-change too (like in the case of the death of a family member or a divorce). When life changes, your will needs to change too.
9. After I make a will, who should I give copies to?
After you sign a will, keep a copy for yourself (duh) and give a copy of it to the person you named as your personal representative (that’s someone you trust who will make sure your wishes are carried out after you die). If you decide not to give them a physical copy of the will, at least let them know where you keep your will so they can get to it if they need to.
If you ever update your will, be sure to get rid of the copies others have—and do this yourself! If you trust them with your will, then you probably trust them a lot. Still, it’s a good idea to go ahead and shred the old document yourself.
10. What happens to my stuff if I don’t have a will?
Whether you know it or not, you already have a will in place . . . kind of. Even if you’ve never signed a will, there are laws in your state that handle how to sort through your property if you don’t have a will.
This type of thing is called an “intestacy law.” And that’s basically a fancy way of saying the state will sort things out for you if you don’t have a will. But then your family is in for a mess. They’ll head to probate court for a while—and that’s a real headache! When you die without a will, probate court will decide things like which one of your family members will get your property, belongings and even your children who are under 18 (yikes!). Don’t let that happen.
Creating a will is one of the most important and most loving things you can do for your family. Believe it or not, it’s easy to make your own will online in less than 20 minutes! All you have to do is plug in your important information, and the rest is done for you. And best of all, this process won’t bog you down with a lot of nonsense legal jargon. Take this step today!