USA Today recently had a front page story –Two exes, a spouse, kids, stepkids – Now try drafting a will. In today’s society there are more and more blended families, which makes having a will even more important. But your family dynamics really don’t matter having a will should be a priority. According to attorney Les Kotzer “Everybody need to plan because we’re all going to die. It’s not if, but when.”
Approximately 70% of Americans don’t have a will. A will is a fairly simple document to create so why do so many people avoid it? Just a few reasons might include: I don’t have anything to leave to my heirs; I’ve got plenty of time to write my will; bad things don’t happen to good people; I can’t afford it, etc.
The bottom line is ‘’ if you love and cherish your family, you MUST take the time to write your will. It ensures your assets are given to your family or other beneficiaries based on your wishes. Wills can be written with the assistance of an attorney or if you’re careful you can write your own will. Most experts recommend you prepare your will with the assistance of an attorney to ensure all the details are covered. Details include designating a guardian for your minor children, designating a Personal Representative. In addition to a will, you should prepare a durable power of attorney for health care and financial issues, in the event you are unable to handle your own medical or financial issues during your lifetime.
Some assets pass outside of the provisions in your will. They are called “non-probate” assets and they pass directly to the designated beneficiary (or in some cases the joint owner). They include:
- Proceeds of a life insurance policy with a named beneficiary.
- Money in a pension plan, individual retirement account (IRA), 401(k) plan or other retirement plan with a named beneficiary.
- Stocks or bonds held in beneficiary form.
- Bank accounts or investments held in joint accounts with rights of survivorship, or with designated beneficiary
- Property you’ve transferred to a living trust.
Naming a guardian for your minor children and naming an executor are two important components of your will. What happens if neither parent is able to take care of the children? Without a will, the court appoints a guardian for your children. Before choosing a guardian, talk to the person to ensure they’re willing to assume the responsibility. Think carefully about selecting an executor because he is the person, who oversees the distribution of your assets, pays off any outstanding debts, taxes and settles your estate. Select someone who’s honest, fair, patient, organized and willing to accept the responsibility. It should be someone who is able to work with various personalities involved with potential heirs or beneficiaries. Being an executor is time consuming, not an easy job, and often quite challenging. You can stipulate your executor be paid for his or her time.
If you decide to write your own will, the document must clearly state it’s your will, you must date and sign the document, and the will must be signed by at least two witnesses. The witnesses must watch you sign the will and should be non-family members and not be beneficiaries of your will. You’re not required to have it notarized although it might help simplify court procedures required to prove the validity of the will after your death.
Be sure to update your will if there’s a change in your marital status, you give birth to a child, move to a new state or any significant change in your life situation. It’s particularly important to write a new will if you’re in a second marriage and you have children from a former relationship. In some cases, your current spouse may automatically inherit your assets and your children may unintentionally be left out.
Your will should be stored in a safe place that’s accessible to others. It’s a good idea to provide a copy to your Personal Representative. And, don’t put the original will in a safe deposit box unless someone else has access to the box.
Losing your spouse unexpectedly is incredibly difficult. You’re overwhelmed with grief and loss and the reality of legal issues quickly come to light. If you haven’t taken the time and effort to put your estate in order, the time is now.