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A last will and testament is a key way to help protect your loved ones in case you were no longer around. A will lets you dictate your wishes, like who should inherit your property and who should care for your children if you weren't here.
Many people assume they don't need a will because they aren't very high net worth, but it may be more relevant for you than you realize.
Once you've decided if you need to write a will, the next step is to actually get your wishes down on paper. When you're learning how to write a will, one of the most important things is to simply get started.
If you have a more complicated financial situation, you may want to use a lawyer to write a will. If you’re looking for a convenient solution and have an uncomplicated estate, you can create a will online. Fabric, for example, offers free wills online.
Next, you’ll want to identify your beneficiaries, or the people who will inherit the things you've left behind. Usually, people leave their assets to their immediate families, such as a spouse or children. You can also leave your assets to more than one person and decide how to split up your estate.
If you have a child, it’s important to choose a legal guardian, or the person who would take care of your kids if worst came to worst. In case the person you chose isn’t available when push comes to shove (for example, they have also passed away or can no longer take care of your children), consider including an alternate option. It’s also a good idea to talk to these individuals beforehand to make sure they’re willing to become legal guardians to your kids if anything happens to you before they’re legal adults.
Under the supervision of the probate court, your executor or personal representative will ensure all your wishes are carried out. Make sure to check with this individual before you list them as an executor, and confirm they have a copy of your will. While executors sometimes do the job for free, it is also reasonable for them to receive compensation for their efforts. How much an executor receives can vary by state.
Along with identifying an executor, beneficiaries and a legal guardian, you can include other (often non-binding) wishes on your last will and testament, such as who should take care of your pets if you pass, or any particular instructions about your funeral.
In order to be legal—in other words, to ensure your wishes get carried out—your last will and testament needs to be signed. Your state may have specific guidelines about what makes a will legal, so do your research to make sure you follow instructions properly.
You’ll need witnesses to sign your will, typically two adults who aren’t mentioned in your will. Follow your state’s instructions for making your will legal. (You can find those below.)
If your state requires it, then you’ll want to get your will notarized. Most states don’t require this step, but getting a notarized self-proving affidavit can make the probate process smoother down the road.
Your assets: That includes bank account balances, real estate, investments, retirement plans, life insurance policies, artwork and anything else you’re leaving behind.
Your debts: Your last will and testament can help establish how your estate should settle your debts. First, your assets will likely pay for any probate costs and funeral expenses. Then they’ll flow to your outstanding debts. If you leave your beneficiary a house that’s partially mortgaged, will he or she have to sell it to keep up with mortgage payments?
Your beneficiaries: These are the people or organizations who will inherit the belongings and assets you leave behind.
The executor of your estate: You'll appoint an executor who will make sure your wishes are carried out and your finances are in order. This could include making sure your beneficiaries receive the money you’ve left them. It can also include filing your final taxes, paying any bills you left behind and closing your financial accounts.
Your children’s legal guardian: This legal guardian will be responsible for your children’s welfare. That includes food, shelter, health and schooling until age 18.
When you're thinking about how to write a simple will, the first thing you might think about is who to choose as your beneficiary.
On your last will and testament form, you can designate anyone (or multiple anyones) as your beneficiary. Beneficiaries can include members of your family, friends. You can even leave assets to institutions like charities. If you want to leave money to a child under age 18, you’ll likely want to name a trustee to administer that money before the child is an adult.
In addition to naming beneficiaries of your will, you can also leave a bequest. That's a specific item or asset you’d like to leave to a person or entity. Consider speaking to an attorney and/or tax advisor about any bequests.
What happens if your primary beneficiary dies? If this person passes away before you, you can change your will to choose someone else. If not, your property can go to a contingent or alternate beneficiary, essentially someone you've selected to be your second choice. If you haven't designated a contingent beneficiary, the outcome would be dictated by your state's laws.
For more insights, check out our guide to choosing a beneficiary.
While you’re free to name a family member or friend as the executor of the will, you can name anyone. The only requirements are that she's a legally competent adult and a US citizen or green card holder. Think about who will do the best job closing your accounts and fulfilling your wishes.
Some people choose to name a professional like a law firm or financial planner as the executor of the will. That's especially true if they want their executor to have prior experience. Naming a pro can also help avoid burdening loved ones with an additional chore while they’re grieving.
We obviously can’t tell you how to choose something as deeply personal as guardianship over your child. That said, many people choose close family members. Think about naming back-up legal guardians in your last will and testament, to help make sure your child is covered if something happens to your first choice.
While not strictly necessary, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation with the legal guardian you'd like to appoint, to make sure he or she is up for the task.
You can even include a letter of explanation of your guardianship choice, in case a judge questions your choice of legal guardian. The judge’s job will be to seek out the best interests of the child, so if you’ve chosen someone contentious you might want to explain how this person is the best choice for providing stability and fulfilling the child’s needs, not to mention the child’s own preference and relationship with this person.
If your family has a complicated child custody situation, a will alone can't ensure you get your way. If you're trying to figure out legal guardianship in the midst of a child custody battle, we recommend you speak to a qualified attorney for advice specific to your situation.
For a sense of what a last will and testament might entail, we created a sample will for a theoretical Jane Doe. You can see, for example, her selections for legal guardian for her children and how she’s chosen to divide her estate.
If your wishes have changed since you initially filled out your online will and testament, you’ll need to update the document. Whenever you undergo a major life event, it’s a good idea to make sure your last will and testament continues to reflect your wishes.
Birth or adoption of a child
Marriage or divorce
Buying or selling a home
The death of one of your beneficiaries or executors
Major changes in your financial situation
Simply want to change something in your will because you feel like it? You’re free to do so.
You could do this through what’s called a “codicil,” which is a document that lets you make an amendment to the last will and testament you made previously. Changes could include updating who you want your executor to be, who you want as your beneficiary or anything else. You would need to attach the codicil to the will and sign it according to your state’s laws.
If you’ve made an online will through Fabric, you can make changes at any time by, essentially, just creating a new version of your will, then printing and signing it. Log in to meetfabric.com and simply choose “update will.”
You may want to check out our last will and testament FAQs or consult a lawyer if you have questions about your specific situation. This is especially important if your last wishes are complex or if your estate is worth more than $1 million.
Writing a will may not be the ideal of Sunday fun, but the relief you’ll feel when you’re done will last you weeks, months and years to come.
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Fabric by Gerber Life exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
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