Do you have a will? If you’re rolling your eyes and avoiding the question, because, well, you don’t, then you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the majority, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. The most cited reason why, according to Caring.com, is “haven’t got around to it.” But while it’s a tough topic to make yourself sit down and think about, it’s also a vital one. “A will is like a road map to what happens after you’re not there to direct traffic,” says attorney Lisa Green, author of “On Your Case: A Comprehensive, Compassionate (and Only Slightly Bossy) Legal Guide For Every Stage Of A Woman’s Life.”
“People think, ‘I don’t have kids, so it doesn’t matter,’ [or] ‘I’m married, so my spouse will handle everything,’ [or] ‘I don’t have that much stuff, so I don’t need to do it,’” says Leanna Hamill, attorney at law. But estate plans aren’t just about your things — they’re also about you and the people you love. State law often designates where your things will go, but without a power of attorney or a healthcare directive in place, there’s no law that specifically designates who will help you in case of incapacitation — meaning you could be left vulnerable. “What you’ll end up with if you don’t have it in place is a judge deciding who will take care of you and make decisions,” says Hamill — it could even be a stranger. Here’s what you need to do to protect yourself.
Before you call an attorney or start seeking out forms online, Hamill recommends making a list of what you own and how you own it (whether individually, jointly, etc.). We’re talking a master list of bank accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, other investment accounts, pension plans, real estate and valuable jewelry, art and other items. For the policies and accounts you gather on the list, look into whether or not you’ve already named beneficiaries — some require this when you open the account — or if you’d like to. In certain states, some accounts can be designated as transfer on death (TOD), says Gideon Rothschild, chair of trusts and estates and asset protection practices at Moses & Singer — meaning in that event, it’ll be transferred to your beneficiary. And while you’ve got the pen and paper handy, make a list of people who you’d trust to help you or act on your behalf when it comes to healthcare and financial decisions. (It doesn’t have to be strictly family — you can also include friends and professionals on your list.)
Create your documents.
If you’ve got a fairly straightforward financial situation and would like to save, you can create a will online. WillMaker is available for $55 at Nolo.com, and LegalZoom’s wills start at $69. Two requirements to be aware of: The document you choose has to clearly state that it’s a will, and you’ll need two witnesses to sign it (ideally two adults, who will not be beneficiaries). Take the list of assets you made earlier, and designate who’ll receive them. Avoid including the exact balances of your accounts (they may be higher or lower down the road). And note: You don’t need to include accounts for which you already named beneficiaries. Instead, put these in your “letter of instruction” (more on this in a minute).
You’ll also need to name an executor. “An executor is like the field marshall, MC, executive producer of your wishes — they make sure they’re carried out,” says Green. This is where that other list you made earlier will come in handy — choose a responsible person whom you trust, let them know you’ve chosen them and give them a copy of your will. And once you’ve checked the will off your list, go ahead and create a durable power of attorney for finance (which designates someone to look after your assets if you’re incapacitated) and health care directive (which identifies someone who can help make decisions for you if you’re gravely ill). These forms are available on the same sites. “Why limit protection to your stuff after you’re dead when you could also protect yourself while you’re still alive?” asks Green. Point taken.
…Or have an attorney create them for you.
If you’ve got a more complicated financial life (or simply prefer to work with a person) a lawyer (preferably an estate-planning attorney) could create an estate plan for you, starting at about $500. You could pay a pro to look your online will over. How do you find an attorney? Ask friends or co-workers for names of those they’ve worked with (and liked) in the past. Or, see if your company offers reasonably priced legal care as part of the benefits suite. Another option is to look on your state’s State Bar Association website for the list of accredited lawyers — specifically, someone who practices trust and estate law. Call and say, “I’m hoping to do a fairly simple will. How much would that cost?” says Green. Some lawyers will bill by the hour, some by the project.
Write a letter of instruction for your loved ones.
This is where you’re going to put everything that didn’t seem to have a place in the will. It should include anything you’d want someone taking care of your home, finances, kids or pets to know. Some ideas? A list of monthly bills (especially the ones that only come online) and how to access those accounts (including passwords), information about how to find important documents like deeds, life insurance policies, long-term care insurance policies, miscellaneous stocks you own, funeral instructions and details for who you’d like to receive sentimental items that didn’t seem to have a place in the will. This is also where you’ll list those accounts and policies that have beneficiaries already, just so those people will know what’s to come ahead of time. Additionally, write out detailed instructions for the guardian who would be taking care of any children (e.g., friends’ names, doctors, allergies, what they’re allowed and not allowed to do, important values, etc.). This — and your other documents — should be updated at least every three years.
With Hayden Field