We know—nobody wants to talk about making a will. It makes us uncomfortable, slightly superstitious and maybe even a little queasy. So, we dodge the topic left and right and put off making a will yet again.
But here you are, reading about wills (even though it gives you an eerie feeling in the pit of your stomach). You’ve already made it this far, and we’re proud of you. Take a deep breath—we’re about to answer some common will questions you’ve been wondering (but were afraid to ask).
- What Is a Will?
- What’s the Difference Between a Living Trust and a Will?
- Why Do I Need a Will?
- What if I Haven’t Had Kids Yet?
- How Is a Will Executed?
- Does a Will Have to Be Notarized?
- Can I Change or Cancel My Will?
- When Should I Update My Will?
- After I Make a Will, Who Should I Give Copies To?
- What Happens to My Stuff if I Don’t Have a Will?
1. What Is a Will?
Simply put, a will is a legally binding document that explains exactly how you want your property to be handled after your death. Making a will is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and the people you care about.
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Think about it this way. When you die with a legal will in place, your stuff goes to the people or organizations you name inside your will. If you die without a legal will in place—often called dying intestate—everything you owned is handled by your state’s probate court (that’s the legal court process that handles giving out your belongings). And guess what? That’s potentially setting up a long, unpleasant, expensive battle for the people you care about.
2. What’s the Difference Between a Living Trust and a Will?
Here’s another one of those questions about wills we hear all the time.
A living trust and a will might seem similar in the way they work, but they’re actually quite different. A will tells everyone how you want the stuff you own to be treated after you die. A living trust holds your assets while you’re still living.
There’s more. A living trust never becomes a public document like a will does after you die. So, if you want to keep everything private, a living trust protects that information, even after you’re gone. It can also help you skip out on probate costs. Any property given through a will has to go through probate, but not if it’s given through a trust!
Keep in mind, though: A living trust can’t name a guardian for your minor children (aka someone who will look after them if you die). Only a will can do that.
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3. Why Do I Need a Will?
You might think you don’t need a will because you aren’t a millionaire, aren’t sitting on a massive piece of land, or don’t have family members who are vultures and want to claw their way into your estate. But guess what? You need a will, no matter who you are.
And if you have children who are under 18, you really need a will. Your will is where you’ll have all the information about who their guardians will be. If you don’t make a will, who will take care of your kids if something happens to you and your spouse? Don’t leave a decision like that in the hands of anyone else but you (especially not the state!).
4. What if I Haven’t Had Kids Yet?
So, you think that since you don’t have kids yet, it’s not important to make a will? False. We just said it, but it’s worth repeating: Everybody needs a will! Even if it’s just you and your dog living in a one-bedroom apartment. Who would take Rover if something happened to you? And if you do have kids later on or a niece you adore, you can update your will to include them.
5. How Is a Will Executed?
This one’s easy. Executing a will is just the technical term for signing your will and making it legally binding.
To execute a will in any state in the United States, two things are required:
- You need to sign your will while you’re of sound mind.
- You must have two people sign the will as witnesses.
A sidenote about your witnesses—make sure you aren’t leaving anything to them in your will (because they won’t get whatever it is!). A witness can’t receive anything from the will they are witnessing. So, skip asking your daughter (who’s getting your house in the will) to be your witness and instead ask a trusted coworker or family friend.
6. Does a Will Have to Be Notarized?
One of the most common questions about wills we hear is Does a will have to be notarized?
The answer is technically no, but we still recommend it anyway. Getting your will notarized adds an extra layer of protection. You just never know who’s going to feel rejected and argue about your assets after you’re gone.
While getting your will notarized isn’t always required by law, some states do want a document (called a self-proving affidavit) signed by two witnesses stating they saw you sign your will or saw someone sign it for you at your request. This document also proves you were in your right mind and signed everything willingly.
7. Can I Change or Cancel My Will?
Absolutely! This thing isn’t set in stone. Nothing is permanent until you’ve passed away. You can add or remove things at any time while you’re still alive.
First, let’s talk about changing your will. In most states, you can change your will using a legal document called a codicil.
What does codicil mean? Glad you asked. Think of a codicil as an amendment or supplement to your will. You can use a codicil if you want to make one or two minor changes to your will and don’t want to redo the whole thing. You still need two witnesses to sign it, but they don’t have to be the same people who signed your will.
If you have major changes, it’s best to create a new will. After you sign your new will, be sure to securely get rid of your old will (shred the sucker). And if you gave copies to anyone else, be sure you’re the one who shreds those too. This way, there won’t be any confusion over which one is the right will.
Let’s say you want to cancel your will. You can do that anytime between creating your will and your death. All that means is, you no longer want your will to be valid or effective if you die.
Each state has different rules for the method used to cancel a will (aka shredding, burning and tearing). Check with your state’s laws to find out how to legally cancel your will.
8. When Should I Update My Will?
- You experience a major life-change, like getting married, having another child, or adopting a child.
- You acquire more property.
- You dispose of property.
- You create new relationships or terminate old relationships.
- You change your charitable interests.
- You want to name a different executor.
Don’t forget that you may need to update your will after any kind of unpleasant life-change too (like in the case of the death of a family member or a divorce).
The least expensive way to update or cancel your will without paying lawyer fees is by using an online will creation service.
9. After I Make a Will, Who Should I Give Copies To?
After you sign your will, keep a copy for yourself (duh) and give a copy of it to the person you named as your executor (that’s someone you trust who will make sure your wishes are carried out after you die). If you decide not to give them a physical copy of the will, at least let them know where you keep your will so they can get to it if they need to.
Here’s another common question we hear: Are beneficiaries entitled to a copy of the will? The answer is yes, all beneficiaries named in a will should get a copy of the will so they can understand their inheritance.
Lastly, if you update your will, be sure to get rid of the copies others have—and most importantly—do this yourself! If you trust them with your will, then you probably trust them a lot. Still, it’s a good idea to go ahead and destroy the old document yourself.
10. What Happens to My Stuff if I Don’t Have a Will?
Whether you know it or not, you already have a will in place . . . kind of. Even if you’ve never signed a will, there are laws in your state that handle how to sort through your personal belongings after death without a will.
This type of thing is called an intestacy law. And that’s basically a fancy way of saying the state will sort things out for you if you don’t have a will. There’s a “but” here, though.
But then your family is in for a world of hurt, because when there’s no will, probate takes over. Your family will head to probate court for a while—and that’s a real headache. When you die without a will, probate court decides things like which one of your family members gets your property, belongings and even your children who are under 18 (yikes!). Don’t let that happen!
Creating Your Will Is Easier Than You Think
Creating a will is one of the most important and most loving things you can do for your family. Believe it or not, it’s easy and affordable to make your own will online with RamseyTrusted partner Mama Bear Legal Forms in less than 20 minutes! All you do is plug in your important information, and the rest is done for you.
And best of all, even though Mama Bear’s legal forms are created by attorneys, they’re not full of nonsense legal jargon.