Get the oil changed. Clean the gutters. Make a will. Regardless of whether it’s an actual list or just a few to-dos running through your head, almost everyone has those pesky things they’re sure they’re going to do someday. But then, work gets crazy, vacation comes up, life gets in the way … and those things never end up getting done.
But that doesn’t mean these tasks aren’t important. And if you’re partnered or have a child, making a will now — or setting aside a date on your calendar that’s not “someday” — is more critical than ever. Regardless of how many assets you have, or whether you rent or own property, having a will not only reduces confusion and stress during an already trying time but getting the task done now means you only have to add, not start from scratch, as life gets busier and more complicated.
“Most people put off making a will for years because they don’t know how easy and affordable it can be,” says Eliam Medina, CEO of Willing.com, a leading online estate planning service.
Creating a will doesn’t have to be complicated. Or stressful. We’ll break it down for you step by step so you can get started with confidence (and maybe even a little excitement).
Who needs a will?
Even singles and twenty-somethings can benefit from making a will from a simple template, but if you’re in one of these categories, having a will is essential:
- People who own property. If you own a house, a car, or even furniture or devices that have value, like your smartphone, laptop, and TV, then having a will ensures that these assets will be divided the way you wish.
- If you’re married. You may assume that all your things will automatically go to your spouse, and while that’s the law in many states, having a will ensures this happens promptly, without complications. For example, if you die without a will and a check arrives in your name only, your spouse would have to get a court-appointed administrator to have it cashed.
- If you have children. While experts agree it’s essential for all adults to create a will, if you have minor children, you definitely need a will so you can name a legal guardian and a guardian of the estate — someone who is able to manage money for them until they reach legal age.
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Why you should create a will
To help your family
The biggest reason anyone needs a will is to help your family avoid a massive administrative headache if you were to unexpectedly die. Without a will, your belongings are divided according to the laws of the state. Generally, that means all your assets would go to your spouse, who then may have the complicated task of trying to decide how you would most like to divide your belongings. A legal document can help minimize conflict between family and friends at a very emotional time.
To avoid legal tie-ups
Even if you’re married and the majority of your property, like your bank accounts, are in both your names, having a will helps your spouse avoid legal headaches.
A will allows you to name an executor to take care of details like cashing checks, distributing money to beneficiaries, and paying off debts. Without an executor, tying up these loose ends becomes an administrative nightmare involving frequent visits to the courthouse for your next of kin.
To make sure your kids are covered
It’s not something anyone wants to think about, but what would happen if you and your spouse were both no longer able to take care of the kids? Appointing a legal guardian, as well as a guardian of the estate, ensures that your children will be raised by the people you want to do the job — and having everything in a legal document ensures there will be no drawn-out custody battles between various parts of the family.
In the will, you can not only name who you want to be a permanent guardian of your children but also who may be able to drop everything and take care of them immediately, were the original guardian not able to do so. For example, say you want your children’s guardian to be your parents, who live across the country. It makes sense to appoint a standby guardian as well, like a trusted neighbor or local relative, who would be able to make medical decisions for your children, look after them in their homes overnight, and keep their routine in your hometown until your parents were able to get them.
In addition, you can also name the person you trust to manage the money you allocate to them, which may or may not be the same person as their legal guardian.
Called a guardian of the estate, this person can manage money to protect their financial interests until they turn 18 and are no longer minors. That way, you can specify your numbers-minded sister can take care of the finances, while your parents or in-laws become the guardians of the children, or divide, however, makes the most sense for your family situation.
The complex “what ifs” presented in imagining the worst make it clear: Even if the unimaginable were to occur, a will can make sure that your children would be able to have a semblance of normalcy even in the middle of a confusing and challenging time.
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To leave a legacy
If you’re passionate about a cause, an organization, or your alma mater, a will can ensure that your assets will go to that organization. It’s also smart to make sure you list potential backups as well, in case the charity or organization in question is not in existence if a catastrophe occurs.
Speaking of leaving a legacy, as you’re crossing off your parenting to-do list, it’s worth it to consider life insurance. There are a number of different types of life insurance, so you’ll want to explore which one is best for your situation. If you’re looking for cost-efficient coverage for the years your family will need it most, consider term life insurance. As with a will, make sure your loved ones know that you have a policy, as well as where they can find information about it. Fortunately, term life insurance is much more affordable than you might think. A healthy 30-year-old woman and can buy a 20-year, $500,000 Haven Term policy, issued by MassMutual, starting at about $18 per month.
To assess your own assets
This is how making a will now can help you now: While you may think you have minimal assets, thinking about how your belongings break down can help you figure out what you have and where it is. From your bank account to your car to your laptop to your high school journals, you have a lot more than you think you do — and a lot of people in your life who would love to celebrate your memory by treasuring these items.
How to write a will
A will does not need to be complex for it to be binding — but it would have a legal once over (read: Should not be typed one-handed as a list draft on your phone during your commute.) To cut down on costs, many people find it helpful to begin with an online template, then schedule a short review with a lawyer to make sure that all i’s are dotted, t’s are crossed, and you haven’t overlooked any key points, such as witness signatures, which could render the entire will void. Once all is said and done, a basic will can cost about $69 for an online service like Trust & Will to $150 for an attorney to complete.
“We don’t own a house or a car, but I knew that I wanted to write a will when my husband and I went on our first trip without our son,” says Blake, mom of a one-year-old. “We found a template online, and were able to use the same lawyer my parents used to look through it. We were only billed about two hours of time, which was worth it to make sure it was airtight.”
To get the best of both worlds, you can use an online service, like Willing, which walks you through the process step-by-step. The service was designed by some of the most respected attorneys in the world to provide you with a complete estate planning package customized to your specific needs. This includes a last will and testament, living will for medical emergencies, power of attorney for finances, and a revocable living trust or transfer deed to keep your home out of probate.
Once a will is completed, it needs to be signed according to state law in order to be valid. The exact requirements for signing a will vary by state. In general, most states require that the will be signed in the presence of two witnesses, who must also sign the will.
Where to store a will
A will does no good if no one knows it exists. You’ll generally need to submit the signed original to the probate court, but having copies in secure places is also a good idea. Common places to store a will are in safe deposit box, at the county clerk’s office (which may require a nominal storage fee) at an attorney’s office (which may be done if you use the same family attorney) or somewhere safe in your home.
“We have one copy of our will in a safe deposit box at our bank, and a copy in a file cabinet, as well as a digital copy, which my brother-in-law has. I think it’s important to make sure that we have copies in a few different places, just so they can be accessed easily,” says Emily, a mom of three.
In addition, even if you don’t share the actual copy of the will with anyone else, make sure a few people know where your will might be stored. Of course, this includes your spouse, but it’s also smart to make sure your parents, in-laws, or a close friend could easily find it if needed.
Make a will now — and make sure to update it later
Having a last will and testament in place may not be a fun thing to think about, but it provides peace of mind for your relatives. That said, it doesn’t do any good if they don’t know about it. And creating a will does not have to be complex. The best way to make sure your wishes are honored is to use a legal template — you can work with a lawyer, but if you have a relatively simple allocation of assets, you may be able to use an online template and have a lawyer give it a once over — and have physical and digital copies, and directions to your loved ones for how to find these documents if needed. And of course, revisit your will every few years, or when an event, like marriage or the birth of a child, happens in your personal life.
Anna Davies is an editor at Haven Life. She has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Refinery29, Glamour, Elle, and others, and has published 13 young adult novels. She lives in Jersey City, NJ, with her family and loves traveling, running, and trying to find the best cold brew coffee in town.
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While we hope this information is useful, it’s only intended as general education. Haven Life doesn’t provide legal advice, so we encourage you to seek advice from your own legal counsel.