Many people are uncomfortable talking about how to write a will because it involves talking about death. However, it’s one of the most important things anybody needs to do. This article explains why and how to do it.
In this article:
How to Write a Will: Everything You Need to Know
What Is a Will?
A will is a written or documented and legally-enforceable instructions by an estate owner. This document identifies how to handle his or her estate after passing away.
There are two approaches to writing a will:
- Do-it-yourself (DIY)
- Through a professional estate planner or lawyer
Why Write a Will?
In general, writing a will minimizes or avoids the risks for family squabbles over one’s estate, and to some extent, minimizes estate taxes. Here are some of the more specific reasons for why you should write a will:
Post-Mortem Control Over Assets
With a written will, a person can control where his or her estate’s assets will go after death. Remember, a written will is a legally-enforceable document, so nobody can distribute a person’s estate assets otherwise.
Ensuring the Best Guardian for Minor Heirs
A person’s assets aren’t limited to inanimate material objects. It includes their children, too.
One of the biggest worries parents have is who will take care of their minor children when they pass away. Through a written will, parents, especially single parents, can designate their underaged kids’ legal guardians when they pass away.
Without a written will indicating otherwise, underaged children may be taken under the state’s foster care system. This often leads to childhood trauma for the surviving minor children.
Minimized Estate Taxes
Through a written will, a person can use financial gifts and asset-distribution strategies to minimize estate taxes, too. To do this, the services of a tax professional is needed during estate planning and writing of the will.
Shortened Probate Period
The probate period is the length of time heirs have to wait before receiving their share of a person’s estate.
During the probate period, the state government freezes all assets of an estate, pending the court’s distribution based on the will or estate plan. During this time, heirs won’t be able to access assets yet.
When a person dies “intestate,” or without a written will, the state will decide how to distribute the estate. More often than not, this involves liquidating or selling an estate’s assets and distributing the proceeds to the heirs.
Liquidating assets, especially properties, take a while. But with a written will, a person can easily instruct the administrator to give specific assets to specific heirs, which bypasses the lengthy asset-liquidation process.
Exclusion of Certain Individuals From the Estate
Not all surviving members of an individual’s family may be worthy of getting anything from the estate. These include disowned children or ex-spouses.
With a written will, an estate owner can specifically exclude people from the estate. This will keep them from legally challenging the designated heirs’ estate inheritance and ensure a smooth inheritance of the estate.
Peace of Mind
With a written will, a person can have peace of mind knowing that, if he or she dies now, the surviving family members will have very little or no reason to fight over assets left behind. A written will can also minimize the estate tax burden they’ll have to bear.
How to Write a Last Will and Testament
Step 1: Hire an Estate Lawyer
Writing instructions on how to distribute one’s estate after dying seems simple and easy. However, consider the horrible experience of the heirs of a former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger.
Being a Supreme Court Justice, people would understandably expect him to know how to write a will. However, he wrote a will that was short, error-ridden, and vague.
As a result of the poorly written will, Burger’s heirs had to pay a fortune to legally receive Burger’s assets. In particular, the heirs paid over half a million dollars total for estate taxes and legal fees.
Step 2: How to Write a Will Without a Lawyer
While writing a will with the help of an estate attorney ensures an iron-clad will, it can be expensive. That’s why some prefer learning how to write a will without a lawyer.
For those who choose to nix the services of an estate attorney, there’s an alternative to a purely DIY-written will — using reputable online software.
By using a reputable legal online platform, people can enjoy the benefit of using well-structured templates to ensure they’re writing a well-written will.
For large and complex estates, however, skipping the services of an estate attorney might not be a good option. The risks of not hiring one are greater than potential savings on professional fees.
Step 3: Identify the Assets
Other than identifying guardians for minor children, a written will also helps identify assets and where they should go after the estate owner’s death.
If there are assets for distribution, the person preparing the will needs to clearly identify these assets specifically.
Step 4: Clearly Identify Beneficiaries and What They’ll Get
Regardless of whether a person’s a family member or the estate owner’s spouse, they won’t get anything unless their names are on the will.
More importantly, estate owners need to clearly identify how much of which assets go to each heir in the will. Even if their names are on the will, vague details about which assets and how much will go to each heir can result in a messy estate distribution process.
For estates that are big (i.e., in the millions) and are complicated to distribute, it’s best to hire the services of an estate lawyer. It’s never a good idea to handle the distribution of such estates on one’s own, even with the use of an online legal platform.
Step 5: Give Specific Instructions How to Distribute the Estate’s Assets
Does the estate owner want to transfer his or her house to the names of all surviving family members equally? Or does the estate owner prefer selling the house after his or her death and equally distributing the proceeds instead?
By choosing and communicating one’s distribution instructions on the written will, confusion and potential conflicts between family members can be minimized.
Step 6: Identify Responsible and Capable Guardians for Minor Kids
As mentioned earlier, orphaned children normally end up in state-run institutions, which can be a traumatic experience for them. By clearly identifying guardians in order of preference, orphaned minors have the benefit of growing up with a family instead of in an institution.
Step 7: Choose the Estate’s Executor
The best people for the job are family lawyers. For those who don’t have one, the next best candidates are close family members or friends.
While banks and other financial institutions can execute a person’s will effectively, they’re typically more expensive. They normally charge fees of up to 4% of an estate’s value.
Step 8: Get at Least Two Witnesses to Sign the Will
Having witnesses sign on the will can minimize the risk of escalating disputes. If ever disputes go to court, witnesses who signed the will can testify to what the estate owner wanted.
All states require at least two witnesses to sign a written will, except for Vermont, which requires three. Also, witnesses must be:
- At least 18 years old
- Not an heir in the will
Step 9: Attach Farewell Messages to Heirs to the Will
Farewell letters or videos aren’t necessary for effective and enforceable wills. However, they can make wills more meaningful and sentimental.
Some prefer to write personal letters to each of the heirs under the will. Executors deliver these letters to the concerned heirs together with copies of the will.
Others prefer to shoot farewell videos, which is played in the presence of all the heirs in the will.
Again, this is optional but is something that can add sentimental value to one’s written will.
Step 10: Store it in a Safe Place
What good is a written will if it’s destroyed or damaged beyond reading when the heirs need it? What good is it, too, if it’s stored safely but in an undisclosed place?
After writing the will, it should be stored in a safe place, such as a fire-proof vault or safety deposit box, and inform a trusted person of its whereabouts.
Learning how to write a will is important, especially for the sake of those an estate owner leaves behind. It helps minimize squabbles among family members, minimize their tax burdens, and give estate owners peace of mind.
Retirees who want to provide more for their heirs upon retirement should consider investing for retirement to boost their earnings during their golden years. This increases the chances of them having more to leave behind for their loved ones once they’re gone.
Have you written your last will and testament already? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section below.
- 9 Things You Must Have On Your Retirement Checklist
- What You Need To Know About Retirement And Successful Aging
- Trump’s Executive Order To Improve Medicare Health Program For Seniors