As a freelance finance writer, I’ve published hundreds of articles full of tips for families to make informed choices about managing money. I’ve covered realistic budget plans and ideas to make the most of credit cards. I’ve written extensively about planning financially for the future, including buying life insurance, saving for retirement and preparing a will. I say all this not to brag, but so you know why I feel self-conscious admitting this next part.
It took me a long time to make a will. Like, a really long time. My husband and I were expecting baby number 3 before we actually got a will in place.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know a will was important, but my own fears and misconceptions still got in the way. Here are the top reasons I felt nervous about making a will, and how it went when I actually did it.
The main reason I put off making a will was because it seemed like such a daunting process. Some nights, tackling a will felt way too complicated. Other times, I tried to convince myself it would be simple to carry out my wishes anyway, even without a will. The truth is it’s much simpler to create your own will than leave loved ones to figure it out when they can’t ask for your input anymore. There were several common misconceptions I had to “unlearn” about wills.
Following the instructions in a will is only one part of handling a person’s estate, and it can sometimes seem like you might not need a will if your wishes are straightforward. Here’s how it works, and why a will matters.
Not all of your property may have to go through a will execution or probate process when you pass away. “Payable on death” accounts or “transfer on death” property can go directly to a beneficiary. If you add your chosen beneficiary to a bank account or life insurance policy (or have shared assets, like a joint account or home in both your and your partner’s name), that money or property doesn’t need to go through probate.
The rest of your estate needs to go through probate to be handled and distributed properly. If you die without a will in place, your state follows “intestate” laws for executing an estate without a will. Intestate laws involve deciding who will inherit your property. Generally, a spouse or children would be top of the list to inherit, then close family members like parents or siblings, then more distant relatives.
In my case, my plan is for my husband and children to inherit what I leave behind. Intestate laws match with my wishes, so my property would go to the same people whether I had a will in place or not. A will still matters, though, for several reasons:
Intestate processes can take much longer than following probate with a valid will.
Saving my family time may also save them stress.
My loved ones could feel comfort knowing they’re following my wishes, not the state’s.
If I decided to leave certain property to other people (e.g., leaving jewelry to my sisters or leaving money to a charity I love), a will can include that but intestate laws won’t.
I can leave additional instructions in a will, such as naming a legal guardian for my kids.
A will can be a complicated document, especially if you have a large estate or complex instructions about who will inherit which possessions. But making a will doesn’t have to be a long or tedious process.
Most financial experts will tell you that best practices are to make a will with an estate planning attorney to walk you through the process. This is smart advice, and the only caveat is that the “best” practice is to have a valid will at all. If the choice is between a simple will you create online or no will at all, the simple will wins every time. You can always take an existing will to an attorney and take your time making sure every detail is accounted for.
Making a will isn’t a one-time deal. In fact, it shouldn’t be. As your life changes — welcoming more children, buying a home, winning a fortune in a baking competition (or getting a much-deserved promotion) — plan to update your will, too.
Ideally, you’ll have as much as possible figured out when you write a will, so it reflects your wishes correctly. In practice, you might know major elements like the main beneficiary and your kids’ guardian, but feel uncertain about smaller details. A will is a legally recognized document, so it’s important to feel comfortable with any version you sign, but it can also be okay in some cases to make a will that works for now and plan to figure out additional details later.
Most days, I feel like I’m constantly chasing a to-do list. Work, baby care, errands, and \chores take up a lot of energy. It’s reasonable to feel some reluctance at the prospect of spending hours planning for what will happen after your death.
It ended up taking less than 30 minutes to make a will, even taking some time for a last gut-check discussion on some plans. Depending on how complex your plans are and how much you have to discuss with a partner, you might need more time, or you might be able to put together a simple will even more quickly.
My husband and I used the free will tool Fabric offers. The prospect of making a will quickly was appealing, given pregnancy fatigue and busy parent life. Here’s the easy, more challenging and unexpectedly sweet parts of creating a will on our couch.
Naming beneficiaries was the simplest part of making the will. My children are under 18, so they can’t inherit property directly yet. Anything left for them would have to go into a trust fund managed by someone else. An easier way to handle my estate was to leave everything to my spouse, with the kids as contingent beneficiaries. I clicked a button choosing this option—easy as that.
By far the most challenging part of writing a will was talking about who would take care of our children if both my husband and I passed away. We’re lucky to have lots of family members who love our kids deeply, but that wasn’t the only factor we needed to consider.
Were our parents too old to take on raising young children all over again? Would relatives be able to handle our three girls plus their own children? My husband and I needed to talk about what felt realistic, and who would make sure our kids grew up with customs and values that matter to us.
I was worried we’d disagree about who should take the kids, or struggle to choose anyone at all. But if we didn’t choose a guardian, our families might be faced with the same struggles, without our wishes to help guide a decision. Courts aren’t required to place children with the guardian named in a will—the child’s best interest comes first, and that can mean a different decision—but when possible, most courts lean toward honoring the will. Talking now also meant we could discuss our plans with loved ones directly once we came to our own decision.
It turned out we were more on the same page than I’d feared. We talked about some parenting priorities and agreed on family members who we could count on in a worst-case scenario.
A will can do more than spell out who gets which property and who you’d like to care for your kids. Additional documents when you use the Fabric tool can also help you share instructions or wishes for your final resting place, memorial service and other notes that are important to you.
Discussing what we wanted for our final arrangements was surprisingly enjoyable. We talked about values, like preferring a green burial out of a desire to be gentle to the environment in our last moments on Earth. Writing notes about what poems or songs we’d like at a memorial brought up memories of choosing our wedding program. While preferences about our burial and funerals aren’t legally binding, I’m sure my family members will appreciate knowing what we have in mind. I felt reminded that making a will isn’t about focusing on death and gloom, but taking care of my family every way I can.
In the end, the main thing I wish I’d done differently to set up my will was take care of it much sooner. I know I’ll make adjustments over time to add detail, like specific bequests, and make my wishes as clear as possible. For now, though, the important thing is feeling secure that I have another important document in place to protect and provide for the people I love. And don't even get me started on all the reasons I'm glad I have life insurance, too.
Try Fabric by Gerber Life’s free online will maker that you can complete in just 5 minutes.
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
Fabric by Gerber Life exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
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