A last will and testament is one of those things you probably don’t want to think about on a random Sunday at the park, and one of those things you’ll be so glad you did. It’s important for all of us to consider what would happen to our loved ones if we died. Writing a will is especially important if you’re a parent or have people who depend on you.
A last will and testament is a document that determines what happens to your property if you die: who it goes to, how and who’s in charge of making that happen. Making a will also gives you the opportunity to name an executor (the person who’s responsible for distributing your assets to the people you’ve named) and a legal guardian for your children.
If you don’t have a last will and testament in place when you die, the government will figure out how to deal with your property--and the guardianship of your children. Typically, the courts will try to identify your heirs and distribute your assets accordingly. For many people, simply sitting down to tackle a do-it-yourself will can make a tremendous difference down the road for the people you love. Of course, if your situation is more complex or if you have specific questions along the way, it’s always a good idea to speak with a qualified legal professional.
Decide whether you want to hire a lawyer or write your own will using an online tool like Fabric’s free last will and testament template. Even if you write your own will, you can always opt to have a lawyer review it.
Identify your beneficiaries (the people who will inherit the things you've left behind).
Choose a legal guardian for your child (that's the person who would take care of your kids if worst came to worst).
Decide on an executor for your estate (that's the person who's tasked with fulfilling your wishes).
Consider other wishes, like who should take care of your pets if you pass, or any particular instructions about your funeral.
Sign your last will and testament.
Find two witnesses (people who aren't listed in your will) and ask them to sign, too.
Get your will notarized, if your state requires it (most don't).
Whether or not you use our free will forms, you’ll need several pieces of information when writing a will:
Your assets: That includes bank account balances, real estate, investments, retirement plans, life insurance policies, artwork or anything else you’re leaving behind.
Your debts: Your last will and testament can help establish how your estate will 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 in order to keep up with the 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: The executor will make sure that your wishes are carried out and that your finances are in order. This could include everything from making sure the beneficiaries of your will receive the money you’ve left them to 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, including food, shelter, health and schooling, until your kids become legal adults at age 18.
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 and even 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, which is 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.
While you’re free to name a family member or friend as the executor of the will, you can name anyone, as long as she’s a legally competent adult and a US citizen or green card holder. Think about who will do the best job at closing out your accounts and fulfilling your wishes.
Some people choose to name a professional--like a lawyer or financial planner--as the executor of the will because they want their executors to have prior experience and they don’t want to burden loved ones with an additional chore while they’re grieving.
We obviously can’t tell you how to choose something as deeply personal as who your child’s legal guardian should be, but many people choose close family members. Think about naming back-up legal guardians in your last will and testament, just to help make sure your child will be covered if something happens to your first choice.
While it’s not strictly necessary, it’s not a bad idea to include a letter of explanation just 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 why and 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.
A will allocates money by naming the recipients of your estate. Meanwhile, a trust provides instructions on money that you want to go to a specific person in a specific manner. Examples might include leaving money to a special-needs child who could use the help of a trustee to manage his finances, or dictating rules about how and when your money should be distributed (for example, maybe you don’t want your child to receive an inheritance until she turns 25). If setting up a trust is something that you think is right for your situation, you should do so with the help of a qualified professional.
Make sure your last will and testament template includes any provisions you need to fit your own situation. If you have any pets, especially ones with long lifespans (like a horse, for example), you might consider including instructions when writing a will, regarding who will take care of your animals after you die, and what money they’ll use to do so.
Your last will and testament form can also include your wishes regarding funeral arrangements, too. Do you have a preference on where your funeral should be held? Who should officiate? What kind of ceremony it should be? The average funeral costs somewhere around $7,000. Where do you expect the money to come from?
Special note: If you’re transgender, make sure your will reflects your identity properly. If not, any conflicting pronouns could be considered a discrepancy and make it harder to execute your last will and testament.
If you were to pass away, what would you want to happen to your Facebook account? Does your spouse know the password to your laptop? If you have particular wishes regarding your digital assets, you can include these instructions when writing a will, like telling your executor to close certain accounts or destroy specific files. Of course, you’ll need to provide your usernames and passwords to help him or her pull this off. A simple will template may not necessarily prompt you to include these provisions, but your last will and testament form can include any instructions you think are important.
Each state has its own requirements for what makes a last will and testament legally binding. Generally, however, you’ll need to be of sound mind when you sign the will and have at least two disinterested people witness your signature.
Your last will and testament will be governed by the state where you keep your primary residence (or the state where you pay personal income tax). It’s wise to familiarize yourself with any rules specific to the state where you live. Most states require two witnesses, but some also require notarization (like Colorado and Louisiana).
If you have specific questions about your state’s requirements, we suggest you reach out to a qualified attorney.
If your wishes have changed since you you initially filled out your last will and testament form, you’ll need to update the document. Whenever you undergo a major life event like the birth or adoption of a child, marriage or divorce, buying or selling a home, the death of one of your beneficiaries or executors, or major changes in your financial situation, it’s a good idea to make sure your last will and testament continues to reflect your wishes.
Simply want to change something in your will because you feel like it? You’re free to do so.
Filling out your last will and testament form is essential, but it’s not the only document you’re likely to need to make sure you and your family are protected. You might also think about:
An advanced health care directive or medical power of attorney: This names someone you trust to make decisions about your health (would you want to be on life support?) if you’re not able to do so yourself.
Living will: Similarly, a living will records your wishes for your medical care if you become incapacitated. Are you religiously opposed to blood transfusions? Do you have specific rules you’d like your caretakers to follow?
Durable power of attorney: This names someone to manage your finances if you’re incapacitated and can’t do so yourself.
If you’re planning to name someone as the executor of your will or your child’s legal guardian, you’ll likely want to tell her beforehand. To make the process easier, we’ve created a free online last will and testament form to help you with making your will, including some ideas to help you get the conversation started with the executor of your will.
You may want to consult a lawyer if you have questions about your specific situation, if your last wishes are particularly 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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This material is designed to provide general information on the subjects covered. It is not, however, intended to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
We are not a law firm, are not licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction and do not provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.
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