Regardless of how healthy or sick or young or old a person is, their time to go could be tomorrow. But what happens when you pass away only for your family to find out that they can't touch any of your property because you didn't leave a will? That brand new car that you've only made a year's worth of car payments on goes to your state instead of your child. The laptop computer that was recently upgraded can't go to your nephew who just started high school. Instead it's sitting in your locked home where the state refuses to let him in. If you had a will, you could have avoided all of this, and you don't necessarily need a lawyer to create one.
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Write a list of all of the things that you would like to donate to anybody. You don't have to decide on who gets what while creating this first list, but you need to clarify what exactly you don't care about donating to the government and what you'd prefer your family, friends, co-workers or even your alma mater receives. This list can include everything from your photo albums and boxes of letters to your mutual funds.
Choose an executor; this is the person who would distribute all of these valuables. Your executor should be willing to follow your directions. Avoid making someone your executor who would encounter a conflict of interest. People tend to become protective of a loved one's items and want to take things that you may not feel they are entitled to. For example, if you have a relative who has never supported your music career but wants to have your demo, it's probably to sell it, not to blast it in her car. In some states, it's automatic for the executor to be your spouse and receive a certain percentage while other states will allow you to choose. But if you are creating a joint will (a will that a husband and wife make together), it may be a better idea to make separate wills anyway in case both you and your spouse pass away together, such as in a car accident.
Create a list of people who you feel are deserving of your things, including your pets, if you were deceased. Be careful with this list. If you are mad at someone at the moment, don't exclude them if you believe the two of you will make up. There have been plenty of cases of spouses who had disputes, didn't put each other's names on the will and a sister or brother ended up taking all of their money. Of course the spouse can go to court to fight for spousal rights, but why put your loved ones through any more stress? This list can be updated as often as you like, but try to put the most obvious and significant people on your list for distribution.
Research what kind of will your state will accept. For example, there are some states that will not accept a holographic will, which is a will that you write, date and sign in your own handwriting. Libraries should be able to help you out with this information, but with the perks of computers, it's easy to use a search engine to find out the legal requirements for your state. (See link in Resources for an example of what to look for).
Decide on who will get legal guardianship of your children, which is something that should be included in your will. Although you may have already appointed a godmother or godfather depending on your religion, it's not official unless it's on some kind of documentation such as a birth certificate or will. Even if it is on a birth certificate, notate it on your will to show that the relationship between you and the godparent(s) hasn't changed.
Consider alternate beneficiaries or executors. If you make a will and then your executor passes away or cannot be located, there needs to be someone else who can decide on the distribution of your money and belongings. You can also have beneficiaries who are different than your executor and who receive separate items. A beneficiary usually receives income from a trust estate. The executor is the person who dictates who gets what, using your will for direction. The executor doesn't have to be someone who gets any of your money or belongings, as long as you trust that she won't try to take advantage of that.
Clarify how you want to be buried and where your burial insurance is. A big, beautiful ivory coffin with thousands of roses may sound like a pretty memorable way to go, but if your cousins can't scrape up enough cash to get you buried in a box and fight over whether they believe in coffins or cremation, this ideal funeral isn't going to happen.
Have two people sign your living will who are in good health and in their right mind, but make sure these two people see you sign off on this will so they can confirm that you were also in good health and in your right mind, not being forced to create the will by someone else hanging over your shoulder. The two witnesses who sign your will and confirm you wrote it cannot be people who are receiving any items in your will.
Update or read over your will at least once a year to make sure nothing has changed. It doesn't cost a thing to get two more people to sign your will if you decide to change around beneficiaries and executors. There also may be things you've lost over time, such as selling your stock or trading in your car for a motorcycle. When these things are not up to date, it can leave a lot of confusion.
Tips and warnings
- Banks and credit unions always ask about beneficiaries when a person buys valuable savings options such as CDs and mutual funds, or takes out a loan. Make sure your beneficiaries on those accounts are up to date too because if you have conflicting beneficiaries on your financial institution's forms than the ones on your will, this can make for a messy court case.
- You don't have to necessarily leave this information in your will, but in a safe place (like a fireproof lockbox), have a separate book with all of your financial institution passwords, usernames, pin numbers, expenses and profits. While some bills can be cancelled as soon as the company finds out you have passed away, other companies want their money anyway. Don't leave your loved ones (or executor) with the responsibility of finding out how to pay for something when you are actually sitting on a great deal of money but no one knows how to get it.
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