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How to Get a Will

Licensed Life Insurance Agent/Staff Writer
June 11, 2020

Life insurance may ensure you leave this world with a way to help your loved ones live on, but it's not enough to ensure your wishes are carried out after you die. To dictate what happens to your other assets, you need a will.

There are multiple ways to create a will:

  • You can use software or an online do-it-yourself will service.
  • You can hire an attorney.
  • You can draw up your own will if laws in your state allow it (although going this route might invite disputes and misinterpretations later).

This article will help you decide which option is the best fit for you and show you what steps will take you from thinking about your will to actually making it.

What kind of will preparation is right for you?

What’s the best way to make your will? That depends on your budget, the size of your estate, your capacity for DIY projects, and your state’s laws.

Online/software for making a will

The fastest, easiest way to make an official will is using software or an online service. These tools walk you through the process step by step and tailor your document based on your state’s laws. There are many will-making services, but these are some of the most popular:

Online will-makers are usually inexpensive, and some (like Fabric) are free. Services like these are an excellent option for most people with simple, straightforward estates and wishes, but they may not be the best solution if you have a large estate with a variety of assets.

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Using an estate attorney

Another option is hiring an attorney. Some people use a trusted family attorney, but there are also estate lawyers who specialize in wills and related services, such as setting up living and irrevocable trusts. You could have them handle all your estate planning needs at once for convenience.

Hiring an attorney is typically the most expensive option, and most attorneys charge by the hour. The more complex your needs, the more you’re likely to pay. But for people with large estates and those who want to take extra care with their final wishes, hiring an attorney could be the best choice.

Holographic will

In some states, you can choose a more casual will and testament called a holographic will. Basically, you write up your wishes then sign the document, which probate court could use to divvy up your estate after you die. If your loved ones contest your holographic will, however, a judge may not follow it exactly.

To write a holographic will, you’ll need to include the date, your full name, and a statement that says you’re of sound mind and not being forced to write anything you don’t want to. It’s usually best to use a template (you can find many of them online) to help guide you.

Some states require that you have your holographic will notarized, but even if your state doesn’t, taking this extra step will add to the document’s credibility. Then, you'll need to seal the will in an envelope and store it safely to ensure it isn't tampered with before you die.

This option is full-on DIY, and it may not cost you more than ink and paper. Unfortunately, this type of will could leave a lot of room for debate after you pass away. Some states require witnesses to testify that the will is written in your handwriting or that they saw you write and sign the will, for example. Otherwise, your holographic will may not be considered valid.

Without a valid will, your assets may never make it into a loved one’s possession. And if you have minor children, the courts will decide who will care for them. In short, using a holographic will is taking a huge risk, and is best avoided except for emergencies. So don’t wait for an emergency. Create a will aligned with your state’s laws now to ensure your wishes will be carried out.

Six steps to creating a will

No matter which route you choose, creating an effective will should include the same basic steps. You’ll need to take stock of what you have and decide who should have it. If you have children, you’ll also plan for their continued care. Then, you’ll ensure your wishes are carried out by choosing a reliable friend or family member to execute your will and obtaining all the proper signatures. And finally, you’ll need to keep updating the document as your life changes.

Step 1: Inventory your assets and debts

Begin by taking stock of everything you’ll leave behind when you pass away, breaking your list into two parts: assets and debts.

Assets

Your assets might include the following:

  • Real estate
  • Bank accounts
  • Retirement accounts, such as a 401(k)
  • Stocks and other investments
  • Cars, boats, or other vehicles
  • Valuables, such as jewelry, art, or collectibles
  • Businesses you own fully or partially
  • Life insurance policies

Note that you may not be able to designate what happens to all your assets in your will. If you co-own any real estate, for example, how you set up the title may determine who will own the property when you pass away. If you've chosen beneficiaries for life insurance and your investment accounts, those designations will trump your will.

Debts

It’s also important to list any debts you may leave behind because these obligations may affect which of your assets go to your loved ones and which might be claimed by creditors. Examples include the following:

Like some assets, your will may not trump who inherits your debts. If someone else has cosigned a loan with you, they’ll be responsible for paying it off in your absence.

While creditors could claim some assets, know that your life insurance payout is safe from creditors—except for you. If you take out a policy loan and don’t pay it back before you die, your beneficiaries may receive a lower death benefit payout.

Step 2: Choose beneficiaries

Once you know what you’re leaving behind, it’s time to decide who your heirs will be. You can choose just about anyone you like, but most people choose from the following:

  • Current or former spouse
  • Children (and their guardians)
  • Siblings
  • Parents
  • A trust (helpful for avoiding inheritance taxes)
  • Charities
  • Educational institutions

How to name beneficiaries to your estate

There are many ways to specify the beneficiaries of your estate, and if your list of assets is long, you might consider enlisting the help of an estate attorney. But in general, it’s best to be as specific as possible.

Name names: Any time you leave room for interpretation, you also leave the possibility of contention among your loved ones. Be as specific as possible when naming your beneficiaries. While you can leave assets to groups of people (“my children”), it’s usually better to name specific people and include their Social Security numbers.

Use percentages: When divvying up assets such as retirement accounts and real estate, use percentages, not dollar amounts, in case the value of those assets changes. Instead of saying "$250,000 of my money goes to John, and $250,000 goes to Gina," say, "50% of my money goes to John, and 50% goes to Gina."

Avoid double-designations: Some of your assets may already be spoken for. When you buy a life insurance policy or open a retirement account, for example, you can assign beneficiaries for these assets. Your will won't trump these kinds of designations, so to avoid confusion, don't name recipients for them.

Step 3: Choose guardians for your children

In addition to designating where your possessions go, wills are critical for ensuring your children go to loving guardians. Their other parent will typically receive full custody by default, but that's not always the case. Focus on designating who will care for your children if the other parent also passes away or is otherwise unable to raise your kids.

Even better, work in tandem with the other parent. If both your wills align, you could eliminate an emotional battle later.

How to name guardians for your children

Caring for a deceased person’s children is a huge responsibility that not everyone is prepared for, especially if you die suddenly. That’s why it’s critical to have multiple backup plans for your kids. Select at least three levels of guardians in order of your preference.

While you’re at it, consider what should happen to your children if their guardians pass away or get a divorce. The more contingencies you can plan for, the more heartache and stress you’ll save your loved ones down the line.

Know that any money you leave your minor children could be under the control of their guardians until your kids turn 18. Many people leave some of their assets to guardians to help them care for the children. Make sure caretakers will have access to any college savings accounts and insurance policies for your children too.

Finally, don’t keep your choices a secret. Make sure all potential guardians are both willing and able to raise your children. Letting other relatives know who you've chosen could be a good idea too, so you can explain your choices and avoid hurt feelings later.

Choosing guardians for your pets

A last will and testament is the best place to designate guardians for your furry, scaley, or feathery children too. Unlike human children, the law may not involve itself in what happens to your pets when you die, but that doesn't mean the issue won't cause stress for your loved ones.

Use your will to assign caretakers for your fur babies. You can be as proactive as you want to by designating several levels of guardians, leaving money to help care for your pets, and gathering documents and vet information. Just as you would with a human child, make sure the guardians you’ve chosen are on board and ready to care for your pets if you pass away.

Step 4: Choose an executor

The final critical choice you’ll make regarding your will is who will take responsibility for carrying out your wishes. This person, known as the executor, will inform your banks, insurers, and creditors of your passing. They’ll read your will and distribute your assets to the proper recipients. The executor may also use funds in your estate to pay off any remaining debts or pay any fees related to probate court.

You can designate any adult to be your executor, even someone named as a beneficiary in your will. Some decedents choose a trusted friend or relative, while others prefer an attorney or a bank (for a fee). If you select a loved one, consider reserving some compensation for them among your assets because an executor's tasks can be time-consuming and stressful.

No matter who you choose, obtain their permission first. If you decide not to name an executor, the court will appoint one later.

Step 5: Make your will official and findable

A will is a tool that helps ensure your heirs carry out your wishes after you die, but it doesn't do your heirs any good if they can't find it or a probate court doesn't accept it. After you create your will, take steps toward ensuring your wishes become a reality, such as signing your will in front of witnesses and telling your loved ones about it.

Have witnesses sign your will

To make it official, you need two witnesses to sign your will. These two people should be able to attest that you were in your right mind and not under duress when you signed your will. Your witnesses should be trustworthy, but here’s the catch: they can’t stand to gain from your estate. Anyone named in the document as a beneficiary, guardian, or executor will forfeit that assignment if they sign as a witness.

These witnesses may be required to testify in court later if the legitimacy of your will is questioned. But you can avoid this necessity by asking your witnesses to complete self-proving affidavits as well (in most states). Essentially, this document attests that the witnesses are who they say they are and should eliminate their need to testify later.

Finally, make your last will and testament airtight by having it notarized. If you take this step, the notary must be present when you and your witnesses sign the document.

Inform your loved ones

Once your will is signed and sealed, it's time to deliver it. Or, at least, deliver news of it. Many people include loved ones in the planning and decision-making process, but if not, now's the time to tell those closest to you about the will. If you don't tell them, you risk leaving your final wishes shut in a safe and not doing any good.

Tell your executor and other loved ones where to find your will, ideally in a fireproof safe or safety deposit box. Consider storing it alongside other important documents such as life insurance papers, real estate titles and deeds, and medical power of attorney documents if you have them. Having everything in one place will prevent your loved ones from guessing or stressing out later.

It's a good idea to send a copy of your will to your executor or a lawyer, but avoid sending out more than one or two copies. If you update your will later, having stray versions floating around could cause debate.

Step 6: Keep your will updated

When should you update your will? Whenever you have a big life change. If you get married or divorced, have more children, or make a large purchase, for example, you should update your will. Or if one of your heirs dies before you do, you may want to reallocate your assets among your remaining beneficiaries.

When you update your will, consider it a completely new document. Your witnesses will have to re-sign, and it will need to be re-notarized. Finally, track down and shred all former versions.

Bottom line: Start your will today

Ultimately, the best will is the one that includes an accurate list of your assets and debts, detailed information about who should get what, and provisions for caring for your children and pets. It should have a trustworthy executor and the necessary signatures to make it official in your home state. Finally, it should be kept up-to-date as your life changes. How you do that is up to you. Just don’t put it off until it’s too late.

Written by
Kathryn Casna
Kathryn Casna is a licensed insurance agent and life insurance specialist who has appeared on The Simple Dollar and Best Company. On a weekly basis, she dives into complex life insurance topics to wring out genuinely useful information. When she’s not wrangling big ideas into easy-to-understand articles, Kathryn nerds out on budget-tracking spreadsheets and tries to coax her leash-trained cat to take outdoor adventures.