No one wants to think about it, and certainly no one wants to go through it. But, it’s an inevitable part of life, and something every responsible human being needs to consider.
Specifically, when you die, what happens to everything you own? What about your spouse, children, parents, and other significant people in your life? Do you want all the people who will be mourning your passing the most to also be dealing with a huge legal fiasco?
Of course, no one wants that for their loved ones. That’s why a properly executed last will and testament is so important, no matter how old you are, how much money you have, or what your circumstances are.
Let’s break down what a will is, why it’s important, and how to go about writing one.
What is a will?
In its simplest form, a will (or, more formally, Last Will and Testament) is a legal document recording how you would like your earthly possessions (including money, belongings, real estate, investments, and future earnings) to be passed along after you die.
Technically, this can be as simple as a handwritten note that’s signed and appropriately witnessed (the requirements to make a will legal and binding vary from state to state.) However, the smartest way to handle the situation is to have a lawyer draw up your will based on your instructions, then confirm and, if necessary, update it annually. That way, you can be sure the document can’t be legally contested.
Why is it important to write a will?
Many people believe formal wills are only necessary if you’re very wealthy or very old. Young people living their life paycheck-to-paycheck tend to ignore writing a will because they feel like it really doesn’t matter.
However, unless you’re comfortable with the idea of the state taking ownership of all your assets upon your death, you need a will. Unless you’re willing to allow all your belongings to be held up for years in Probate while the wheels of justice slowly but surely pass them along to your next of kin, you’ll want to write a will. And, if there’s any reason at all why you don’t want your spouse, ex-spouse, child, parent, or other blood relative to inherit everything you own, you’ll definitely want to write a will to ensure your wishes are met.
You see, when someone dies and no will has been written, each state has its own laws to dictate how the situation unfolds. In most cases, everything goes to the spouse first, then to any children of the deceased. If you die with no spouse or children, your parents are next in line. From there, it moves on to the next closest blood relative.
That process can take years, however, during which the state holds onto everything you once owned. And, if there are any disagreements among your blood relatives as to who “should have” received your belongings, years of court battles could be in the works.
On the other hand, if you take the time to write your will, you eliminate all questions and expedite the process considerably. Your loved ones no longer need to worry about anything surrounding your estate, they simply need to grieve naturally and move on.
Even if your assets amount to just a few hundred dollars at the time of your death, it’s better to have those few hundred dollars allocated quickly and simply rather than leaving one more thing for your loved ones to deal with after you’re gone.
How to write a will
While most courts will accept a simple, handwritten letter as a legal will — assuming it clearly states that it is, in fact, your last will and testament, and that it meets the local state guidelines for a binding contract — it is strongly recommended that you invest in a few hours of a lawyer’s time to have your will drafted by a professional who knows how to make it clear, binding, and unequivocal. The more complex your will is, and the more assets you expect to leave behind you, the more important this becomes.
With the help of your lawyer, you can create a list of assets that can be passed on to others upon your death. You can also determine who will (or will not) inherit those assets. Additionally, you can determine if you want any of your estate to be donated to one or more charitable organizations or to be held in trust for a specific purpose.
With all those decisions made, you and/or your lawyer can write a clear, simple explanation of your wishes regarding how to dispense your assets and belongings after your death. Additionally, you can include a “living will” which stipulates things like whether or not you would like to be kept alive on life support or receive any “extraordinary measures” in case you become incapacitated and cannot speak for yourself due to medical reasons.
Beyond that, you simply need to name an executor for your will — an individual you trust to carry out your wishes after you die — and, if necessary, a guardian to care for your minor children. That’s all that’s needed to write a legally binding last will and testament in the United States.
While no one wants to think about dying, no one wants to think about their friends and loved ones struggling with a legal fiasco after their death either. So, take the time now to write a valid will and keep it updated. Your friends and family will appreciate your forethought down the road.