Do you know who would have legal guardianship of your children if something were to happen to you or your partner? Do you know for certain your estate would be quickly and indisputably transferred to your heirs? On that note, have you selected your heirs? Though you may think there’s no need to create a will because you’re young and healthy, life is unpredictable. “The sooner you put a comprehensive plan in place, the better off you and your family will be,” say Rosanna Guardavaccaro, a registered representative and financial advisor of Strategies For Wealth and a financial representative of Guardian based in New York City and Rye.
Here’s what you need to know when it comes to planning your will.
Choose a Will-Writing Method
There are a number of ways you can set up your will, and, depending on your financial resources, each method has its pros and cons. A lawyer is the best option, especially if you have a large estate, according to Guardavaccaro. A typical fee for a simple will is approximately $500, Guardavaccaro says, but that extra expense is worth it for the peace of mind that comes with hiring a professional.
If hiring a lawyer is out of your budget, or if you just don’t have the time to sit down with one, there are online forms and apps that can help you get started. For example, USLegalWills.com allows you to make your will at home by simply filling in a form and answering questions. With a fee of approximately $40, it’s a more affordable option for young professionals or those with young children. You could also use an app to develop your will, such as Tomorrow, which offers the software free of charge.
In extreme cases, a holographic will, one written in your own handwriting and typically without multiple witnesses, is an option in certain states. Though not legal in New York in most instances, holographic wills are accepted in New Jersey.
“To be clear, not all do-it-yourself approaches to will writing result in a holographic will,” says Tim Hewson, president of USLegalWills.com. “It is an absolutely terrible way to prepare your own will and is almost certainly going to result in a very poorly drafted document. Holographic wills are written into law to cover extreme circumstances, like being pinned under a rock, where witnesses are not available. It is not a will-writing approach that should be considered under normal circumstances.”
Think About the Details
Once you’ve selected the method to create your will, it’s time to think about the details. Guardavaccaro suggests consulting with a lawyer to ensure this is done right, “but the basic process is relatively straightforward: Make a list of your assets, decide who gets what, and pick someone to serve as an executor for your estate,” she says. “Meet with the attorney and iron out expectations both monetarily and the actual creation of the will. Once an attorney is chosen and the will is created, the individual picks three witnesses. …The witnesses should be friends you trust.”
When planning your will, it can also be easy to overlook a few aspects like social media and gifting rights. It’s good to think about who will shut off your Facebook and Instagram, and whether or not your heirs can give away their inheritance as they see fit. Be sure to discuss these with your lawyer, if you have one, or make provisions for them otherwise.
Select a Guardian and Heir
If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to appoint a guardian for your children if they’re younger than 18. “The parent has to figure out who will…take care of the assets for the benefit of the children,” Guardavaccaro says. “When appointing a guardian, it is best to look at either a family member or friend that you can currently count on and raises their children in a similar fashion that you do.” Some aspects you might want to take into consideration are fiscal responsibility and religious or ethical values.
When it comes to selecting an heir, you’ll want to keep in mind how old your children are. For younger children, the guardian will likely also be named as the property guardian and manage the estate until the kids are old enough to take over, according to Nolo.com, a resource with easy-to-understand legal information. For children who are 18 or older, it’s important to have a clear line of communication about what to expect should anything happen to you. “Make sure they’re aware of any wills, accounts, or trusts that name them as beneficiaries,” Guardavaccaro advises. “Also, give them the name of your lawyer and your financial representative, as well as details on accessing your financial holdings.” This will help prepare them for the future and simplify the process in the future.
But what if you and your partner pass away or become incapacitated without having selected either a guardian or an heir? “Without having a clear directive from you, the state takes over and the next of kin can be brought in to take care of the children and assets,” Guardavaccaro says. This means your loved ones and belongings can very easily end up in the hands of the wrong person, especially if you’ve had a falling out with certain members of your immediate family. For this reason, you should clearly specify who you want to look after your children. Though this is a big decision, if you end up changing your mind or part ways with the person you had selected as your guardian, you can always amend the document later, according to Guardavaccaro.
The Ramifications of No Will
Aside from the obvious concerns of your property and family going to the wrong people, not having a will can cause strife and disagreements among your relatives. “I have encountered squabbles over small items of sentimental value to large, truly valuable items like paintings,” says David Reischer, Esq., a New York attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. “Families seem to fight over anything and everything. Therefore, always remember: Have the deceased execute a last will and testament prior to leaving this world, in order to determine his intent how to distribute any remaining items in the estate.”
After all, it’s better to have a will in place and not need it, rather than leave your loved ones to scrap over your possessions.
The emotional aspect of setting up a will—coming to grips with your mortality, imagining a world where your children grow up without you, divvying up your possessions with the understanding that all you own and all you love will someday be out of your grasp—is intense. But don’t let that stop you from taking the steps to ensure your family and friends will be prepared in the event the unthinkable happens. Parenting is full of tough decisions that can make you stop in your tracks, but at the end of the day, you have to do what you can to ensure your family will be okay.