It’s easy to put off writing a will. The process can seem complicated, not to mention expensive. And, if you’re single and don’t own a house, you may also feel like a will is unnecessary.
But writing a will actually doesn’t have to take a lot of time, or money. And even if you don’t have a lot of assets, having a will can give you peace of mind that your preferences will be followed.
Here’s what you need to know to write your own will.
What Is a Will?
Simply defined, a will (also known as a last will and testament) is a legal document that details what you want to be done with your possessions after your death. Your will may also identify a guardian if you have young children, as well as an executor, the person who will carry out the terms of your will.
What a will doesn’t cover is any asset in which you’ve designated beneficiaries. Named beneficiaries override a will. For example, if you designate all your property to go to your parents but you have a life insurance policy in which your brother is listed as a beneficiary, your brother will get the life insurance payout while your parents would get the rest of your assets.
There are other important documents people may create at the same time as they create a will, and are all a part of an estate plan. These include:
• Living will If you were to become incapacitated, what are your preferences as far as medical treatments? This document legally outlines your wishes.
• Power of attorney If you are unable to make decisions for yourself, who has the authority to make those decisions on your behalf? Power of attorney may be divided into medical power of attorney — the person who has power to make medical decisions for you — and financial power of attorney. Both can be the same person.
• Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order This document communicates that, in the event of your heart no longer beating or you no longer being able to breathe independently, that you do not want doctors to perform any life-saving action.
• Organ and tissue donation If you were to die, would you want your organs and tissue to be donated? Having a form explicitly stating your wishes can make it easier for loved ones to fulfill your desires, instead of guessing what they think you would have wanted.
Not all documents need to be filled out at once. For example, some people may only fill out a DNR order if they have a terminal illness or are unlikely to recover.
Recommended: Important Estate Planning Documents to Know
Dying Without a Will
Even if you think you own nothing of great value and you’re still working on money management, chances are you do your own things that matter to your family. And if you die without a will, your loved ones may become involved in a complicated court process that will freeze your assets until state inheritance laws are followed.
If you’re single and die without a will, your assets will likely go to your closest blood relatives, which may be your parents or siblings. While this may be the preferred choice for some people, having a will allows you to earmark certain assets (or pets) for a charity or close friends.
It’s also a final chance to communicate your wishes to your loved ones and allows your loved ones to avoid a potentially drawn-out court process.
Dying without a will can become even more problematic if you have children. If you die without a will, the court will appoint a guardian. And, while the court attempts to choose a guardian with the best interest of children in mind, that choice may not be the same choice you would make.
How To Create a Will
Below are simple steps that can help you make a will.
1. Choosing How You’ll Create Your Will
For people who own a lot of property or assets, and may want to set up trusts as a way to minimize taxes and ensure their heirs follow their wishes, it can be well worth the investment to hire an attorney who can walk them through the basics of estate planning.
However, online templates and will-creating platforms can be sufficient for many people. These DIY options can be much less expensive than working directly with an attorney and are legal and binding provided they are signed appropriately. Some of these online options are even free.
Recommended: How to Write a Will Online in 8 Steps
2. Making a List of Your Assets
In order to leave property to your loved ones, you need to know exactly what you have. So it can be a good idea to start by making a list of all your significant assets, including jewelry, artwork, real estate/land, cars, and bank accounts that don’t name a beneficiary.
If you have retirement funds and/or life insurance, you don’t need to write out who is going to receive the proceeds, as these require naming beneficiaries within the account or policy.
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3. Being Specific About Who Gets What
Once you have a list of all your assets, you can decide who you would like to get what. Here, it’s helpful to be as specific as possible, such as using full names and being detailed in describing the assets.
4. Considering Guardianship
For many parents, including pet parents, guardianship can be the most fraught element of their will. This can be a decision that takes time.
For example, some parents love the bond their children have with their grandparents but worry about how aging parents would handle the physical stressors of raising young kids. Other parents may wish to appoint a sister or brother who already has children, so their own kids can be brought up alongside other children. There is no wrong answer, but thinking through contingencies and what-ifs can be helpful in making the most informed decision.
It can also be a good idea to discuss the idea of guardianship with the intended recipient. Maybe a single uncle loves your kids but is uncomfortable taking on the role of parent, or maybe grandparents have similar reservations as to their fitness for taking on the role.
Recommended: New Parent’s Guide to Setting Up a Will
5. Choosing an Executor
Naming an executor for your will is an important choice. This is the person who will make sure that the wishes laid out in your will are followed. The duties of an executor include paying any remaining bills and debts, distributing your assets, and handling probate (transferring the titling of assets).
If you wish, you can name more than one person as an executor of your will.
6. Signing Your Will and Storing it in a Safe Place
A will is only legal when it is made legal — that is, printed and signed according to instructions. You generally need to sign a will in the presence of at least two witnesses. In some cases (such as if you’re using a document called a “self-proving affidavit” to simplify the process of going through probate court), your signature must be notarized as well.
You’ll also want to make sure you keep copies as directed. Many people keep a physical copy in a safe place, as well as a digital copy. Some might also share their will with their executor, or tell them where it is so it can be easily and quickly accessed if you were to die unexpectedly.
7. Updating Your Will as Appropriate
As your life changes, you may need to return to your will and update it. This could be due to:
• Asset changes. Buying a house, opening an investment portfolio, and other financial moves may lead you to revisit your will.
• Relationship changes. If you get married or have a serious partner, you may want to change your will to reflect that.
• The addition of children or pets to your family.
• The death or incapacitation of an appointed guardian.
It can also be good practice to assess your will after every life change, or every year or so. To update a will, you can either write what’s called a codicil (essentially a document stating any updates, written and signed by witnesses) or create a new will, depending on the extent of the changes.
While the topic of death and end-of-life wishes can seem overwhelming, creating a will can be relatively straightforward. And, thanks to the many online templates now available, you can often make your own will for a relatively low flat fee, or even for free.
The process of writing a will typically includes coming up with a list of assets, choosing where you’d like each asset to go, as well as choosing a guardian (if you have children) and an executor of your will.
While you may not think you need a will, having one (and updating it as appropriate) can be a gift to your loved ones when they may need it most.
As you get your affairs in order, you may also want to get your financial life organized. One simple step that can help is opening an online bank account, such as SoFi Checking and Savings. With SoFi Checking and Savings, you can spend, save, and earn a competitive annual percentage yield (APY) — all in one place. Plus, you won’t pay any annoying account fees.
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This article is not intended to be legal advice. Please consult an attorney for advice.