It’s the topic NOBODY likes to think about. If you’re healthy, it’s uncomfortable to contemplate your demise. However, denying your mortality doesn’t change the fact that someday you will die.
It can happen far sooner than you realize. Accidents are the third leading cause of death in America – in 2017, only cancer and heart disease claimed more victims. That year, more than 139,000 of our fellow Americans died in crashes, falls, and workplace incidents. Remember – accidents can happen to anyone at any time.
Let’s pretend that tomorrow, you made a sudden exit from this world. What would happen to your dependents? How would your assets be distributed? Without a legally-binding document outlining your wishes, the courts will decide for you. Loved ones may engage in bitter, protracted legal battles over your estate – is that what you want?
Of course not. That’s why it’s important to have a will on file – even if you’re currently healthy. In this post, we’ll walk you through the process of crafting your first will & testament.
What Is A Will, And What Does It Do?
A will is a legally-binding document that details your last wishes. It obligates the state and next-of-kin to distribute property in the manner you dictate. They can also determine who gains custody of any minor children. While local laws and unforeseen circumstances can limit their effectiveness, having a will trumps NOT having one.
Without a will, the state can divvy up your estate however it sees fit. Loved ones may bicker, argue, or even sue each other. Estranged relatives may try to claim what ought to belong to your dearest loved ones. Your children may end up in the care of someone you don’t trust. A last will & testament avoids all these scenarios.
Even if you have an uncomplicated situation, it still makes sense to have a will. Without one, dividing your estate can take months. With a last will & testament in place, the process moves much faster.
Lastly, properly planning the dispersal of your estate can maximize the amount your loved ones receive. By structuring inheritances properly, you can minimize taxes. In doing so, you’ll ensure your family gets the financial boost they need to thrive long after you’re gone.
Last Will & Testament Terms You Need To Understand
Once you get past the whole “contemplating your own death” thing, there’s another barrier to overcome – legalese. Like any legal niche, last wills & testaments can get confusing. Lawyers love to cram these documents full of arcane terms that most people can’t get their head around.
Now, it’s possible to write wills in a fashion that’s straightforward and easy-to-understand. However, there’s no way to do so without jargon you’ve probably never encountered before. Below, we’ll explain the most important terms you’ll come across while writing your will.
- Testator – The creator and subject of the will – that’s you.
- Beneficiary – A person/party who receives property via your will.
- Bequest – This provision allows you to grant property to a beneficiary.
- Guardian – The person/people who will assume care for any minor children.
- Codicil – Amendments made to your will after its initial filing.
- Executor – The person tasked with dispersing your estate after your passing.
- Testamentary Trust – A structure that manages assets until its beneficiary reaches a certain age.
- Inheritance Tax – A levy imposed on the transfer of assets from a deceased to a living party.
- Gift Tax – A levy imposed on gifts made by living persons to others, usually family members.
Creating A Will That Covers All Your Bases: Our Top Tips
Ready to take on the challenge of crafting your own will? We’re not going to lie – this can be a physically and emotionally draining process. However, there are ways to make the process go smoother. Below, we’ll share our top five tips for creating your last will & testament.
(1) Use A Software Program/Web Service To Draft Your Will
It’s 2020 – you no longer have to write your will from scratch. Scores of software programs now make the process as simple as filling in text fields. Lawyers are no longer necessary, as the finances of most Americans are relatively uncomplicated.
If you fall into this category, you no longer have to pay a lawyer thousands in legal fees to construct an airtight last will & testament. Now, you can spend less than $100 on a program that covers 99% of situations. The best online willmaker software options out there include Nolo by Quicken and USLegalWills.com.
If you’re a business owner or have over one million in assets, we do advise working with a lawyer. But, if even you aren’t, having a lawyer quickly review your will isn’t the worst idea in the world.
(2) Don’t Wait To Figure Out Who Your Beneficiaries/Guardians Will Be
For many people, selecting beneficiaries and guardians is a simple matter. Most plan on transferring their assets to their surviving partner. Widows plan on splitting it evenly among their kids. If one parent dies, their spouse gets the kids – and so on.
However, if you don’t have an uncomplicated family situation, sort things out ASAP. If you’re a widow, or someone who went through a rough divorce, who will take care of your kids? Does one of your adult children need more financial help than the others?
Don’t wait for a health scare or a near-death experience to scare you into action. If applicable, figure out which of your heirs can take on the responsibility of raising kids. Speak with them beforehand – you don’t want to foist this on someone without their prior knowledge.
Similarly, if you plan to bequeath your home, ensure potential recipients are willing/able to take on homeownership. Property ownership comes with responsibilities (e.g., property taxes, liability, etc.) they might not be willing to bear. Before bequeathing your home, talk to potential heirs before naming one as the benefactor.
(3) Being An Executor Is Tough Work – Choose & Compensate Them Well
Once you’re gone, you’re gone. As such, you’ll need someone to act on your behalf when the time comes. Someone you trust.
Being an executor involves hours of brutal, thankless work. It starts with organizing your funeral and ends with them dispersing your estate. However, despite what it says, “long lost” family members will try to find “anything” that entitles them to a portion of your estate.
As a result, you’ll want to ensure that your executor is a responsible party. For months after your death, they’ll be carrying out functions essential to the orderly transfer of your assets. According to experts, you should pay them a fee equal to 3-5% the value of your estate. Given the countless phone calls, internet research, and lengthy legal hearings they’ll endure, it’s the least you can do.
(4) Be Painfully Specific About What Your Beneficiaries Get
If there’s a legal loophole your long-estranged uncle can exploit, he’ll find it. To prevent the misinterpretation of your well-meaning words, you must explicitly state who gets what. Don’t make assumptions: If you want one of your children – who makes much less than their other siblings – to get half your estate, say so.
Also, don’t assume your partner will manage your assets the same way you would. If you want your kids to have a portion of your estate, make a provision concerning that. By creating a Testamentary Trust, you can rest assured they will be taken care of, no matter what your spouse does with his/her share.
(5) Safeguard Your Will
What good is a will if it gets lost? Papers, flash drives, and the like can easily get misplaced during moves or home renovations. Worst of all, a fire/flood can ruin many hours of hard work, forcing you to start anew.
We recommend storing your last will & testament somewhere secure, like a bank or fireproof safe. When you do this, find a way to relay passwords/lock combinations to your executor before/upon your death.
Plan For The End So You Can Enjoy The Present
Humans are funny – we live like we’re immortal until something shows us that we aren’t. Life has a case mortality rate of 100% – nobody gets out alive. Nor do we leave this planet in an orderly fashion – you can die at 40 as easily as one does at 80.
You owe it to your loved ones to make a succession plan for your assets ASAP. This way, you’ll prevent them from going through unnecessary pain during an exceptionally emotional time.