Fact: Creating a will likely won’t be as much fun as putting together a baby registry. But it just may be a more essential step on the road to becoming parents. Don’t have a will yet? There’s no wrong time to write one, and writing a will as soon as possible, especially once you have kids, can help make sure your children will be provided and cared for exactly how you wish in case you or your partner were to die. And while creating a will can be a simple process you do digitally, it’s not something you want to do in a time crunch. Many parents find having a will on hand give them peace of mind when traveling without their children, when leaving their children with grandparents or babysitters overnight, or just to check off their to-do list. To make the whole prospect a little less daunting, we’re breaking down the steps you need to take and the things you need to consider when creating a will.
What Goes into a Will?
One of the more daunting things about writing a will is knowing what, exactly, a will contains. Elements of a will include:
• The will itself. This lays out how you plan to divide your property after your passing.
• Guardianship documents. These state who you want to care for your child (and how) in the event you were no longer there.
• A healthcare proxy. Also known as a living will, this dictates how you would like medical decisions handled if you weren’t able to make them yourself.
• A power of attorney. This stipulates who can act on your behalf in legal or business affairs while you’re still alive.
Having a legally binding will on hand (read: not a handwritten list scribbled out on a legal pad) can help your survivors avoid probate, a complex and time-consuming legal process that determines how your assets are distributed to survivors. In addition, a will that names guardianship for your children can ensure that they’re taken care of by the people you think would be the best fit—not by people appointed through the court.
If you have a very high net worth or have specific concerns related to guardianship—say, you’re the parent of a special-needs child or are already the guardian of a minor or someone who can’t look after him or herself—working with an attorney may make sense. But today’s cutting-edge tech platforms make it possible to create a legally binding will without working one-on-one with an attorney. Knowing that writing a will can be done from your laptop when your kids are (finally) asleep can make it easy to actually check this important to-do off your list.
How to Write a Will
Writing a will can seem like an off-putting task, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. Trust us—knowing exactly what you need to do to get it done will make it feel all the more manageable. So let’s get down to brass tacks: Here’s how to write a will, step by step.
Wondering if you and your spouse should make a joint will? Your wills may be exactly the same, but even if you have the same wishes, it’s smart to create separate wills. If one of you were to die, it can be a legal challenge to change anything stipulated in the joint will.
Step 1: Establish your wishes
Before writing a will, it’s important to have a few key conversations (which may be ongoing) with your partner to go over your assets, your wishes, your hopes for your children and your preferences surrounding healthcare. While these topics may sound heavy for a Friday night date night, these discussions can prove invaluable and help ensure you’re on the same page, both for the future and for right now.
Probably the most pressing question is who you would want taking care of your children if both of you were to die. Deciding on a guardian can be an emotional conversation, and while you don’t need the guardian’s permission or approval to name them in the documents, it’s a smart idea to ask them. It’s also a good move to let relatives know if they’re not being named guardian, especially if they expect to be. For example, say you want your sister to be named guardian of your children because she has similarly aged kids and lives nearby. If you feel your parents would be hurt by this decision, letting them know now can stave off pain if the worst were to happen.
Next up is to figure out your assets. Do you own a home? A car? A Beanie Baby collection? No matter how silly or minor, naming beneficiaries for assets can eliminate pain, confusion and grief. If you’re married, it may make sense to leave everything to your spouse if you were to die, and your spouse to do the same for you—but make sure you name someone else as well, in the event that you were both to die.
Many parents of minor children become confused as to how to leave assets to their children in a will—after all, it’s not like a toddler can exactly be a homeowner. In general, parents who wish assets to go to their minor children appoint someone called a “guardian of the estate.” This person, who may not be the same as a legal guardian (but can be), would be responsible for handling any assets until your child comes of age. For example, if you name your sister as a guardian for your children, you can also appoint your numbers-minded mother as a guardian of the estate.
Would you want extraordinary or invasive medical interventions in the case of illness or accident? What are your thoughts surrounding organ donation? If you weren’t able to advocate for yourself, who would you trust to make medical decisions? All these questions can come into play when drafting a healthcare proxy or living will. Remember, there are no right answers, but mulling over these what-ifs now can ensure that your wishes would be followed. This conversation is also a good one to have with your healthcare proxy; even if it’s written down, talking through it now can give you the time to share your thoughts and wishes in a more nuanced way than is possible on paper.
Step 2: Fill out the documents
The conversations and thought processes surrounding making a will are the hard part. Now comes the easy part: Creating a legally binding will. Services offering online will templates can digitize what used to be done in an attorney’s office, guiding you through a question-and-answer session to determine the needs of your family. Not only does it make the process much easier, but it can also be significantly cheaper. Willing—the world’s number one estate planning site—has estate planning packages that begin at $69 and offer documents including a last will and testament (which includes naming guardians and naming the executor of the will), a living will, a durable power of attorney, a transfer on death deed and a revocable trust. You don’t need a lawyer to review your documents before submitting them—instead, the online will software guides you through every step of the process.
Step 3: Sign the documents
Once you’ve made a will, pay close attention to how it becomes binding, especially if you use a digital service. Some services, like Willing, offer an e-signing option, where the will can be notarized and signed entirely online. (How easy is that?) Otherwise, you may need to print it out and sign it in front of a notary.
Wondering where the will should be kept? Some families like to keep a hard copy in a safety deposit box, while others store it digitally. No matter what you choose (best practices may depend on the type of will service you use), it’s important to let family members know that one exists and where and how to access it. It also may be a good time to ask them if they’ve made a will of their own.
How Often Should a Will Be Updated?
If you’re still growing your family, you likely want to update it when you have another child. You also may need to update your will if someone named in the document passes away or if you buy property or inherit assets.
A will used to have to be updated via a document called a codicil—but the benefit of using an online will template is that you can edit your will after life events. In any case, it’s smart to review your will either after any major life event or about every two years.
Published September 2018
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