According to a recent Gallup poll, less than 50% of Americans have a will. In addition, 47% of respondents to a Caring.com estate planning survey acknowledged not having a will because they haven't gotten around to creating one.
Creating a will is a process that appears intimidating to many people. Most people likely don't have a will due to a lack of understanding of why they should have one or what it takes to write a will. Others believe that it's too time-consuming or too costly and don't want to worry about spending the money. But writing your will does not have to be a costly or lengthy process. Here's what you need to know about how to create a will and why it's so important to have one.
What Is a Will?
A will is a document outlining your last wishes, as well as how you want your assets distributed after your death.
For anyone who has dependents, assets, or last wishes, having a will is a parting gift to your loved ones to help make the adjustment of your departure a little easier. Creating and maintaining a will is certainly an important part of your estate planning.
Do You Need a Lawyer to Write a Will?
An experienced lawyer can offer advice when it comes to creating a will or implementing estate planning strategies. Depending on your specific financial situation, whether you have dependents or how complex your assets are, you may hire a lawyer to help you with the process (WCI has a list of vetted professionals who could help you with estate planning and other legal matters).
But you don't need a lawyer to write a legal will. There are online templates available to help you create your own will. First, however, it's important to review the requirements to make sure your will is legal in your state. States have different rules and regulations when it comes to estate planning. In the state of Georgia, for instance, handwritten wills are not legal. A will must also be signed in the presence of at least two witnesses in most states.
If you decide to do it yourself by leveraging online templates or services, it's essential to take a few minutes to understand the legal requirements where you live.
Steps to Create a Will
If you want to create a will and plan to use a lawyer, the process is very easy.
Lawyers will ask you standard questions—such as where you want your assets to go or who would be the guardian to your children—to fill out the will templates they already have. You will then review the draft put together by your lawyer. Once you have approved the final version of your will, you will sign the will in front of your lawyer and the witnesses necessary to make your will legal.
For what it's worth, some companies offer legal services to their employees at a small fee. It is worth researching if your company offers that benefit. It can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in lawyer fees.
If you plan to write your will without a lawyer, researching your state law to understand the elements required for a legal testament is a significant first step. You can then use an online template or service such as LegalZoom or Fabric to help you with the process.
Whether you decide to use a lawyer, an important step in the will creation process is taking the time to list out your assets and liabilities. Though you might not include every single asset in your will, it would be useful to have a list readily available for your loved ones.
Once you are done writing your testament, you should print it, sign it in front of two witnesses, and keep it in a safe place.
What to Include in a Will
As you write your will, there are essential items to include.
Name of the Executor
A legal will should have a person responsible for ensuring that the last wishes that you have included in your will are carried out. That's the executor. The executor of your testament can also be a beneficiary; however, it does not have to be the case. It's important to clarify in your will which role or roles you want them to play.
Naming who should benefit from your will is essential. Failure to designate beneficiaries will give authority to the courts to decide.
How You Want Your Assets Distributed
If you have specific ideas for the distribution of your assets, taking the time to write them down will help make the process easier.
If you have minor children, you should designate a guardian for your children in the event of your death.
List of Main Assets and Liabilities
Including a list of your main assets and liabilities is also useful.
In addition to these essential items to have in your will, your will should have your signature and that of the witnesses present. It should also include the date of the signature to be valid.
What to Not Put in a Will
There are a few items to avoid in a will.
Offering an inheritance based on certain conditions is not a good idea. If you want to add specific terms to the inheritance, consider having a trust as well.
Property Owned with a Right of Survivorship
Any property owned with someone else with a right of survivorship will automatically belong to the other person if the worst happens to you.
Property That Can Pass to a Beneficiary Without Having to Go Through Probate
Proceeds from 401(k)s, IRAs, or other retirement plans; life insurance proceeds, or payable on death bank account proceeds should not be included in your will as long as you have named the beneficiaries on each account. That is because those types of properties will bypass probate and go directly to the beneficiaries.
Funeral Arrangements and Personal Wishes
It is a good idea to prepare a letter of instruction to share details about your funeral arrangements and personal wishes because your testament may not be read before your funeral. The letter can also include a list of all your assets, even the ones that can pass to a beneficiary without going through probate.
Having a will is essential when it comes to estate planning. It's also key to remember that as you experience life changes in the years after you initially create one, it's important to update your will. If you believe that you need additional guidance or instructions for your loved ones when it comes to your assets, consider a trust as well.
Have more questions about estate planning or protecting your assets? Hire a WCI-vetted professional to help you sort it out.
The White Coat Investor is filled with posts like this, whether it’s increasing your financial literacy, showing you the best strategies on your path to financial success, or discussing the topic of mental wellness. To discover just how much The White Coat Investor can help you in your financial journey, start here to read some of our most popular posts and to see everything else WCI has to offer. And make sure to sign up for our newsletters to keep up with our newest content.