Disclaimer: this isn’t legal advice, and shouldn’t be taken as such. Before drafting a will, consult a lawyer or legal service
Writing a will can be scary, but it’s one of the most important things you can do for your loved ones. Setting out clearly what you have and where you want it to go will save them time and energy, and being open and up-front with spouses, kids, extended family, and even close friends is a way to keep dreaded squabbling to a minimum.
If you don’t have a will already, the process can seem daunting, and here’s where we say it is best to consult a lawyer or even use a DIY legal service to make sure your will accurately reflects both your wishes and state laws, which can vary greatly. It’s also a good idea, once you’re done, to get it notarized for extra security.
Before you meet with an attorney, though, there are some questions you can ask yourself—and your family—to help you get a sense of what your will should spell out.
Pick an executor: An executor is someone tasked with carrying out the wishes laid out in your will (say, making sure a beloved heirloom necklace gets to its intended recipient), and they are also often responsible for settling various aspects of your estate, like paying final bills or closing accounts. Many people choose a spouse for this job, but it’s also a good idea to think about using a trusted and responsible adult child, a sibling, or even a close friend. Another option is to use your lawyer or financial planner—this can be especially helpful if your estate is complicated or you’re worried about your family’s ability to manage your affairs.
Think about your beneficiaries: This might seem obvious, but you may realize as you write out a list of people you want to leave money or goods to that it’s longer—or shorter—than you think! Interested in setting aside money for a favorite niece to go to college? Is there a distant cousin you’re not close with anymore but want to acknowledge for sentimental reasons? This is doubly important if you’re part of a blended family—every estate lawyer we talked to mentioned horror stories about kids from one marriage feeling left out when a new spouse inherits everything. A good lawyer will help you ensure everyone you want to take care of is acknowledged clearly.
And think about your stuff: What do you want to bequeath beyond money and valuable heirlooms? In my friend Elizabeth’s* family, it was a longstanding joke to proclaim a cake stand in her grandmother’s kitchen ‘hers,’ but when her grandmother died without leaving the cake stand to anyone in particular, it sparked a fairly big argument amongst the cousins. You definitely don’t need to inventory every single thing in your house, but it’s worthwhile to think about objects that might be especially meaningful—or useful—to family and friends and note those items in your will.
Keep it updated: Most people won’t need to regularly update their wills, but it’s important to remember that life circumstances do change! Once a year, do a quick scan of your will to make sure it still reflects not just your wishes, but also the abilities of the people in it. If you’ve arranged for a relative in your age bracket to be the executor, for example, have a backup plan in case that person can no longer serve.
Keep it secure—and make sure everyone knows where: We’ve all seen it—someone dies and a will is read. Then, just as everything is about to be distributed, someone else produces a secret will written just days before the deceased’s passing, totally shocking everyone! OK, maybe we’ve only seen this on TV, but it does reiterate how important it is to make sure your will is easily accessible. Keep a hard copy in a safe place at home, and a PDF version on your computer. Leave an additional printed copy with your lawyer, and make sure your executor knows how to get to each of them—the last thing you want is for your loved ones to have to tear the house apart looking for your last wishes.
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