Just like trust funds, wills are another element of estate planning that many people think only apply to the very wealthy.
However, wills are a useful tool for nearly everyone.
Are you married? Do you have or take care of young children? Is your net worth in the black?
Then you need a will if you want to protect all of the above after your passing.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover what a will means in the U.S., what types of wills exist, why it’s important to create a will, how to make a will, and what to do to ensure your will ends up in the right hands.
What is a Will?
In the U.S., a will is a legal document that the creator uses to describe what they want to happen to their children and assets after their death. The testator is the person who creates the will, in which they appoint a legal guardian for children under the age of 18, an executor to carry out their wishes, and beneficiaries who will inherit their assets.
A will is helpful even if you already have a trust, which is a legal entity that takes the form of a document and enables you to set guidelines as to how you want your assets to eventually be managed — right down to who receives the benefits of certain assets and according to what specifications.
While trusts guide the management of specific assets, wills manage the sum of your possessions and outline a plan for any family members for whom you’re responsible.
If you fail to create a will, decisions about your estate and your children will fall to judges and other officials rather than to your own family.
Different Types of Wills
The last will and testament of which many of us have heard is the most common type of will. Also called a testamentary will, it’s signed in the presence of witnesses to maximize the chances that your wishes are enforceable.
A last will and testament doesn’t take effect until after death, but a living will (or advance directive) provides instructions related to your care should you become ill or otherwise permanently incapacitated.
Holographic wills are written and signed by the testator without witnesses. They’re named after a relatively unused definition of the word holograph: “A document written wholly in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears.” Holographic wills are used when time is of the essence and witnesses are unavailable. It’s important to know they’re not recognized in some states and the rules surrounding them are strict.
There are several types of couple’s wills that address how assets will be left to the surviving partner. A pour-over will ensures remaining assets automatically transfer to a previously-established trust at the time of death. And finally is the least-recognized oral will. With an oral will, the testator speaks their wishes in the presence of witnesses. But lacking any written evidence, oral wills are not often recognized by legal entities.
Why It’s Important to Create a Will
It’s clear from the wide variety of types of wills that they’re meant to cover a range of situations and people.
Wills are not for the uber-rich, they’re for anyone with any amount of cash, property, or other assets that they want to make sure end up in the right hands after they die.
Wills ensure that the heirs you want to have access to your assets — and not the ones you don’t — are able to claim them without going through the probate process.
The average estate can take 6 months to 2 years to get through probate. And as much as 8% of assets can be eaten up by the cost of this process, from attorney fees to accounting fees, appraisal fees, bond fees, and more.
Another benefit of having a will is that you can personally decide whom you want to care for your younger children if you are no longer able to do so — a decision that you would surely rather make than let the courts decide.
If you die intestate — without a legal will — the state government will oversee the dispensation of your assets and determine guardianship.
And that can lead to trouble.
A lot of the time, an estate without any legal governing documents will be split up between debt payments, surviving spouses, and children. This can lead to the loss of important family assets, the sale of certain assets that your spouse may have been counting on, and worst of all the placement of minors in questionable care.
In fact, 35% of Americans have experienced or know someone who has experienced conflict in their family as the result of a lacking will. And 53% say they’d feel better if they created an estate plan.
Yet, the number of Americans who have wills has dropped 10% since just 2017.
Because there is a pervasive lack of knowledge around how to make a will.
The decline of wills is partially caused by a lack of education around how to go about getting a will. If you also feel like you don’t know where to start when it comes to creating a will, here’s everything you need to know.
5 Steps to Writing a Will
While this is far from legal advice and every single situation will have its differences, these steps will introduce you to estate planning and put you on the right path to creating or getting your own will.
Step 1: Decide on The Type of Will
As we explained above, a testamentary will that’s signed in the presence of witnesses is the best way to ensure that your wishes are enforceable should they ever be challenged. If you don’t feel you have the time or energy to pour over all the will options, a testamentary will is the way to go.
That said, you might find that you’re interested in a type of couple’s will, a pour-over will, or another that aligns with your specific needs. If you have the option, consider all the various types to ensure you make the best decision.
Step 2: Gather the Resources You’ll Need
The kind of information and amount of money you need to create a will depends on the type of will, how you’ll have it prepared, and on the assets you want to include.
However, here are the basic resources most testators need during the process:
- Financial statements that can help clarify what property you own, how the title is held, and the value of the property. Dive deep here, any “asset” that can be transferred counts: Artwork, homes, digital assets (like cryptocurrency), traditional assets (like stocks and bonds), life insurance policies, businesses, and more.
- Any titles, deeds, or other ownership information that you can produce
- Checking, savings, retirement, and other account statements
- A list of debts, such as mortgages, loans, lines of credit, consumer debt, etc.
- Copies of any other estate planning documents you have
- A list of family members, or a family tree that shows a clear path to your descendants
- Payment, which can range from as little as 20 or so bucks for a premade template to a few thousand for a lawyer’s time
Step 3: Plan What You Want Your Will to Say
Up next, it’s time to consider the key points on which you need to make decisions before actually putting pen to paper and creating a will:
- Whom you’d like to appoint as beneficiaries, which assets each of them will receive, and their contact and identification information
- Who will execute the will to your specifications
- How the executor should handle specific situations, such as taking care of debt
- Who you’d like to serve as guardian for your children (if applicable). It’s a good idea to talk to this person (or persons) ahead of time as well as have a backup option in mind.
- If creating a living will, be sure to include instructions related to your care and who should be in charge of making decisions on your behalf (this is called an attorney-in-fact)
Step 4: Create the Will Using Your Method of Choice
While you can create a will on your own using a service provider or by simply printing up a template, we recommend having your will either created by or at least checked over by a lawyer who specializes in estate planning.
Whatever you choose, don’t forget to have your will signed by at least 2 witnesses and notarized to help it hold up against possible challenges later on.
Step 5: Let Everyone Included in Your New Will Know Their Role
Talking about your will has upsides for both you and for the people who will be involved when it goes into action.
One, it helps educate future generations and normalize the practice of estate planning before it’s too late. And two, it helps the process go smoothly when beneficiaries, the executor, the attorney-in-fact, and other involved parties know what to expect when the time comes.
Make Sure Your Will Ends up in the Right Hands
As you see, wills are not just for the financially well-off, they’re for anyone with cherished family members whom they want to protect and assets that they want to put to good use even after they’re gone.
It’s never too soon to start educating yourself about estate planning and thinking about what will happen to your assets (and all the critical information that accompanies them) in your absence.
This is exactly why Kubera’s wealth and beneficiary management platform was born.
Kubera is an easy-to-use wealth and net worth tracker that enables users to monitor a wide variety of assets; from the traditional ones like investments, cash, and real estate to the cutting-edge ones including cryptocurrency, domains, and revenue-generating digital platforms.
In addition, Kubera’s “Safe Deposit Box” feature offers a place to securely store your most important financial and legal information — such as a will and other estate planning documents. Then, our beneficiary management feature allows you to name a beneficiary (and a backup) who is granted access to your entire portfolio and all your documents if you become inactive on your account.
Kubera is the only portfolio tracker that makes sure your assets, your will, and your other important financial and legal information ends up in the right hands right when it needs to.
Start your subscription to Kubera to see if we’re a good fit for you and your future.