Do it yourself Will|
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The most basic document of any estate plan is the will. A will specifies how you want your assets distributed on your death; if you have any assets whatsoever, you need a will. And you need one now, regardless of whether you’re already a retiree or a 21-year-old just starting out on a career. You can change your will at any time — a will does not go into effect until you die — and people in fact do change their wills, often on an annual basis, as their situations change.
Use Software to Prepare a Will
Given how easy it is to prepare a will — you can do it yourself using a software package such as Quicken Willmaker or via online forms at reliable websites such as Nolo.com — it’s remarkable how many people fail to do it. If you die without a will — dying “intestate” — then your state or provincial government will decide how your assets are distributed. Rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but assets are usually first divided among a surviving spouse and any children. If there are none, then surviving parents come into the mix, and finally other blood relatives. In the absence of any immediate family or blood relatives, your state or provincial government treasury will happily absorb your assets. If you don’t want to pay an unintended death tax, prepare a will now.
Software packages and online forms will lead you through a step-by-step process, often in interview fashion, in which you list your assets and name your beneficiaries. If you hire an estate lawyer to draft your will for you, he or she will lead you through a similar process. Generally, you might name certain beneficiaries to receive certain specific assets, with a final clause stating that “everything else” goes to your primary beneficiary. Or, you can state that all assets are to be divided on a 50/50 basis between two children. If a beneficiary lives in another state or country, be sure to provide contract information in an attachment.
The first step to preparing a will
The Benefit of Joint Accounts
There may be more direct ways to pass on assets than through a will. If you have bank accounts and other financial accounts that you consider to be shared property with your spouse or partner, then you can amend the ownership of these accounts such that they are “joint tenancy with right of survivorship.” Your name and your spouse’s name will both appear on the account, and you will both have equal access to the account while you are both still alive. When you die, your spouse will automatically become sole owner of the account without the need to refer to a will. (Should you survive your spouse, you will then become sole owner.) Some financial institutions may need to see a death certificate before they can remove the deceased’s name from the account. Joint tenancy with right of survivorship, similarly, can be applied to deeded property such as motor vehicles and real estate.
Designate the Beneficiary
Some accounts that can only be held individually — such as Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) — allow you to name a beneficiary, who will receive the assets on your death. These assets will also pass to your beneficiary automatically, without the need to refer to a will. All of these assets, whether jointly held or already designated with beneficiaries, need not be mentioned in a will. And be sure not to garble your will by naming a beneficiary for a jointly held asset other than the person with whom you jointly hold that asset!
Revocable Living Trust
Wills that designate beneficiaries must go through probate, which is a special court that legally distributes your assets as you have specified. Probate takes time — several months — and costs money. Various fees — for court time, attorneys, assessors, filers, and the like — can chew up up to 8 percent of the total value of assets in a will. This comes right out of your estate. Many people avoid probate by creating a revocable living trust, and moving all their assets from their personal possession into possession of the trust. These trusts allow you to continue using your assets as before — a living trust names the grantor of the trust (you) as the primary beneficiary. However, the trust can name your heirs as secondary beneficiaries, designating certain assets for certain secondary beneficiaries as you see fit. By this process, it is the trust document that distributes your assets, not a will; there are no fees (or minimal fees only), and no waiting period for the probate process.
A Will Is a Necessity
Even with a living trust, you still need a will — which will not specify assets, but simply indicate the living trust as the “working document.” Wills also perform other functions. If you have underage children, you will specify a legal guardian in a will. If you have any special wishes as to how your children should be raised, these details should be specified in a separate document. And, of course, you should discuss the matter in detail with your intended guardian beforehand; don’t surprise anyone! If you don’t want underage children to have direct access to money they’ll be inheriting, a will can set up a trust for them, or make other arrangements for the disposition of their inheritance until they turn 21, or some other age that you designate. A will can also specify any wishes you have for your own funeral arrangements.
The Executor of Your Will
Finally, you will need to designate an executor for your will — the person responsible for seeing that your wishes as specified in your will are followed. However, an executor often takes on a much larger role, effectively managing the logistics of your death, including contacting friends, making funeral arrangements, distributing death certificates as necessary, posting notices in newspapers, and more. It’s a big job. Be sure to discuss the matter beforehand with your intended executor to ensure that he or she is up to the job, and always name an alternate. A sibling or close friend might be a better choice than a spouse.
Once you’ve prepared your will, make several copies and notarize them. Store them in logical places that other people know about — a bank safe deposit box and a certain drawer in your wardrobe, for instance. Your executor should also probably have a copy.
A Will in Recorded Video Form
Some movies and TV series include dramatic scenes in which a deceased person’s last will and testament, in the form of a recorded video, is aired before a roomful of grieving relatives. The legal standing of a recorded will might be contestable; a video should only be supplementary to a properly written and notarized will. Don’t do a video for your own satisfaction; you won’t be there to witness its airing, and some of your friends and relatives may find the experience strange or disturbing. A recorded will is at best a gimmick.
With a properly prepared will and supporting documents, you can ensure that at least the logistics of your death will not cause undue difficulties for your surviving family and friends.