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If you’re an adult, you need a will. It’s just part of the package of being a grown-up. If you care about your family, you don’t want to leave them to fight over that old Beanie Baby collection and the rest of your 401(k), right? So, if you’ve been putting off making a will because you don’t know how to, keep reading.
So, what’s involved in creating a will? Do you just scribble something down on a sticky note? Can you just write a will and get it notarized? There’s a little more to it than that . . . but it’s pretty straightforward. Especially if you use a simple will template. Most importantly, creating a will won’t break the bank either.
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How to Make a Will
1. Decide what to include in your will.
It’s time to think specifically about your belongings, savings and estate. (If you have stuff, you have an estate.) Go ahead and pull together the paperwork for your home and any other real estate you own, along with life insurance policies and bank and retirement accounts.
Do you have a car, beloved pet Fido, or rare book collection you want to go to a specific person? Include it in your will. This will help your executor (the person who carries out the wishes in your will) when it’s time to distribute your assets (aka your stuff) and save your family from unnecessary stress.
2. Decide who gets what.
This isn’t a time for general estimates. Who do you want to get your stuff? Think about your spouse, your children and your extended family. Drill down and decide who gets (or takes care of) what.
If you’re happy with it all going to your spouse, that’s fine. But making a will also gives you the chance to decide what, if anything, you want other loved ones to get too.
Whether it’s one or 20, write down the names of the people you want to get all your stuff. Then think about how you want to divide up your assets and estate.
You could leave an equal percentage or set dollar amount to each of your children. You could decide to leave a chunk to charity. And there could even be special items you want to leave to certain people—like that vintage train set your kid always wanted to push around the living room growing up. Now is the time to record those gifts.
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Something that might help to know is there’s a difference between heirs and beneficiaries. Real and/or personal property goes to heirs, while money from things like life insurance policies, investment accounts and trusts goes to beneficiaries (people or entities). You name your beneficiaries when you open the account or buy the life insurance policy. And your will does not cancel out the selections you made.
And remember: Just because you wrote a will doesn’t mean it overrides other things already set in place. If you and your spouse own a home, depending on how you guys hold the title, it may go to your spouse automatically. If you want it to go to someone else, you’d have to change the deed.
3. Choose an executor for your will.
The executor is the person you appoint to make sure your wishes, as you state them in your will, are carried out. They’ll be responsible for paying off all your debts with the funds in your estate, having any property appraised and sold if necessary, delivering property to your heirs, including handling all those special giftings (like your pet or the train set), and reporting to the probate court as required so your estate can be settled and closed.
Your executor should be a level-headed, ethical and responsible person you trust—someone who isn’t intimidated by strong-willed family members! You may want to choose one of your adult children, a family friend or an attorney to take on the job. Attorneys are usually paid to do this out of the funds in the estate, and each state has specific laws about how to handle their fees.
4. Name guardians for your children.
If you have children who are minors, you’ll need to name their guardians in your will. These are the folks who will take charge of your most important legacy—your kids—when you’re gone.
Guardians should be people you trust. And before you make this decision, you should talk to whoever you’re considering to make sure they’re able and willing to take on the responsibility. Some people even set aside money for the guardians in their will to help with the expense of taking on another person (or more) in their household.
Pro tip for this step: Don’t forget to give the guardians access and authority after you die to work with any insurance or savings accounts you’ve set up for your kids. This includes stuff like a college fund or an account for their first car. That way you know the money will be used for the things it’s meant for. This is where trusts come into play.
5. Sign your will in front of witnesses and a notary public.
This is the important bit! A written will is not valid in most states unless it’s signed and dated by the one who’s writing the will (yep, that’s you) and two witnesses. Surely you have two friends willing to watch you sign a piece of paper.
Even though witnesses can’t be people who could inherit anything from your will, they should be people you know quite well. That’s because after you die, if someone challenges your will, they could be called to appear in court to confirm they saw you sign your will, that no one forced you to sign it, and that you were of sound mind when you signed it, (aka you understood what property you owned, who your heirs were, and that what you were signing was your will).
One way for your witnesses to avoid a trip to court is by making a self-proving affidavit, which is required by some states. Self-proving what? It’s just a notarized document that confirms two things: Your witnesses saw you sign the will, and you signed it willingly and in your right mind. It acts as their testimony, so if your will ends up in court for any reason, they won’t need to appear. If you choose to do this, make sure you don’t sign the will until you’re in front of both your witnesses and the notary public.
6. Let everyone know beforehand.
It’s a good idea to alert everyone involved and included in your will ahead of time. For the executor and guardians, get their permission before tagging them with these responsibilities. They need to be capable (and willing) to take them on. (Overseeing an estate is a big job.)
And remove the mystery of what’s in your will by letting your beneficiaries know what’s coming their way before you’re gone. Trust us: Taking away the element of surprise could save some heartache for them later on. It’s peace of mind for everyone involved—especially you.
If you end up changing the will later, make sure you update everyone involved on the changes, otherwise they may try to challenge the new will after you die.
7. Store your will in a legacy drawer.
We recommend you put together a legacy drawer to store your will and other important documents. This can be a waterproof and fireproof file box or folder that holds the documents your family would need if something happened to you. If you store your important documents in a safe deposit box at a bank or credit union, be sure to state in your will that your executor has the authority to enter your safe deposit box. Be sure to include the name of the bank, the box number and the location of the key.
But time out here. We live in an increasingly digital world! So it might make sense to have a digital version of your legacy drawer. Make sure you’re storing your documents somewhere safe, like a trusted digital storage platform or a personal file on your computer.
If you choose to create a digital legacy drawer, just remember you must always retain the original notarized copy of your will and other documents like powers of attorney. Most likely those are physical documents so you should keep those in a safe, physical location as most courts require the original document to be filed when probate is opened.
Regardless of whether your legacy drawer is physical or digital (or both), make sure you include the most up-to-date version of your will (signed and witnessed), estate plans, insurance policies, bank account details and passwords, tax returns, funeral instructions, and anything else you think your family will need to know.
8. Consider writing a letter with your will.
If you want to pass on words of encouragement and love or even instructions to your heirs, write a letter to go with your will. Your words will help them as they try to honor your wishes—especially if you’ve chosen an executor for their no-nonsense personality. Remember though, nothing in your letter should contradict your will.
Hint: Hopefully you’ve already had a chance to tell your kids and loved ones what you’re leaving them in your will so there are no surprises, but a letter is a good chance to speak to them one last time about it and reiterate anything that’s really important to you.
9. Update your will as needed.
Once you’ve made a will, you can revisit and update it as your life changes—because life happens. You could move to another state, have more children, adopt a child, go through a divorce and remarry, or make adjustments to your will because one of your heirs has died. Even if you don’t think your will needs updating, it’s a good idea to read it over every few years anyway—just to refresh your memory.
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Why Making a Will Is Important
If nine steps to making a will seems like a lot, just keep in mind why you’re doing this. Creating a will is important because it’s one of the last things you can do for your family after you’re gone. As they’re grieving your loss, they won’t have to guess what you wanted—and they won’t have to deal with the stress (and expense) of fighting in court over your stuff. And if you die without a will? There’s no guarantee your wishes will be known or followed.
Learn How to Make a Will Without a Lawyer
Making a will is easier than you think. And if your estate is modest, you can probably skip the attorney (hooray . . . no hourly rates!) and use a simple will template. Take our quick, easy quiz to find out if a state-specific template will work for you.
There are some situations when you might need an attorney’s help. A few examples:
- You have a large estate, are concerned about tax consequences, and are thinking of putting your estate in a trust
- You have assets in a different country
- You want to exclude someone from your will
- You want to disinherit someone from an existing will
- You have a special needs child who will need financial support, medical care or assistance with physical needs for their lifetime
In any of those scenarios, you should probably work with an attorney.
But if you’re looking for instructions on how to make a will without a lawyer, we’ve got you covered. You can create a simple will to take care of the basics, like your real property (land and buildings), children, and personal property (clothes, home furnishings and furniture, automobiles)—and you can do it all online. Awesome, right? With the required signatures, a will made online is just as legal as one produced by a lawyer.
Making a Will Online
The easiest and most cost-effective way to protect your loved ones when you’re gone may be to make a will online. If you decide that a simple online will is right for you, we recommend you start by finding a reputable online company that offers a will specific to your state and then create one tailored to your needs.
A good online service will also give you the chance to set up your durable powers of attorney, like a financial power of attorney and medical power of attorney, at the same time you write your will—another one of those grown-up responsibilities.
Remember, making a will protects those you love at a time when they’re grieving. Leave a legacy of intentionality and generosity today by creating your online will with RamseyTrusted provider Mama Bear Legal Forms.
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