In a situation wherein you’re fighting for your survival, there are many things that can happen that may result to your death. Fighting off predators may not end with you as the victor. Moving from your campsite may lead you to hostile grounds. But more than this, your life may end abruptly in everyday accidents such as car crashes, getting hit by lightning or being buried alive in a landslide. These are situations that you will not be able to control.
What will happen to your loved ones when you’re gone? Who’s going to take over the business? Who gets what you left behind? These questions drive us to the point that although we might not want to talk about dying, we have to at least be prepared for it for the sake of the people we’re going to leave behind. This is exactly what writing a will accomplishes.
WHAT IS A WILL?
Contrary to popular belief, writing a will is not a task reserved to the rich or powerful. A will is a legal document that details who inherits your assets and who’s going to manage your estates in the event of your death. It also gives clear and concise instructions on who’s going to take care of your children, especially those who are below the legal age. Because it is a legal and binding document, a valid and lawfully recognized will is signed by you and your witnesses.
Writing a will is not as simple as leaving instructions to your loved ones. You have to make sure that the law will recognize it so as to avoid unnecessary legal battles that might not end in favor of your loved ones. In order to make sure that your assets, estates and children are in good hands after your death, there are several things that you will have to consider.
The process of writing a will starts when you, the testator, seeks trustworthy legal advice on how to go about doing it. Though you are not required to have a lawyer with you in the process of writing it, an expert eye is definitely something you should consider to avoid the pitfalls of an invalid will. At the very least, consider hiring a qualified and regulated solicitor to help and guide you through the process. Because handling and executing the will is critical, you will also have to make sure that you choose a responsible, capable and trustworthy executor to exercise your instructions. Though you may choose your spouse as the primary executor, it would be a great idea to appoint a substitute executor just in case you die together.
WHY DO YOU NEED A WILL?
A will allows you to take control of what will happen to the things you’ve worked hard for and to take care of the children you’ve given your love to. It gives your family the opportunity to mourn properly knowing that there are many things that they won’t have to worry about. It gives you the peace of mind that you will only receive when you know that your children will continue to be cared for and that you will leave them in capable hands.
Dying without a will gives the state the power to decide what’s going to happen to your assets in accordance to the intestacy laws. Often, they will divide and distribute to your spouse and children but remember that not all states and countries are governed by such a law.
One in three people die without a will. In worst case scenarios, this causes family feuds over who gets what and why. Your family will be unable to make important decisions regarding what you left behind. Thus, if you want to ensure that everything will be taken care of beyond your grave, take the time to make a will.
IS THERE ANYTHING THAT A WILL CANNOT COVER?
While you can leave instructions on how to proceed with regard to most of your assets, there are several things that a will cannot cover. For one, properties in which you hold in joint tenancy with someone else are fully transferred to the remaining survivor (also known as right of survivorship) automatically and without delay and probate. The same goes for properties with tenancy by entirety, a kind of ownership that is usually reserved for married couples, community properties with right of survivorship and properties you’ve left to a living trust.
The money you own is not entirely transferrable even with a will. Life insurance payouts in which you’ve named a beneficiary beforehand is one of those. Money from pensions plans, life insurance policy payouts and retirement assets will also be given to who you named as a beneficiary at the time when you accomplished the forms given by an account administrator. Investment properties such as stocks, bonds and in some cases, real estate and vehicles that have been designated with transfer on death (TOD) will also follow the same procedure.
Aside from properties and money where you’ve named a survivor or a beneficiary, your will cannot cover funeral instructions for the simple reason that it is most often found and carried out after the event. Still, if you wish to be buried in a specific way or if you have final arrangements you’d like to happen during your funeral, you will have to create a separate document and let an executor know about it to make sure that it is carried out in time.
Another important thing that you cannot do on your will is to put conditions on when the beneficiary will be allowed to take full ownership of your assets. Specifically, you cannot state that the beneficiary can take full ownership depending on their religion, marriage or divorce. You do have some measure of control over some matters but it is inadvisable because that would require the executor to enforce the conditions for an indefinite period of time.
Other things that your will cannot cover is taxes and probate. Furthermore, you cannot leave anything to your pets as they are not governed by the law. If you’d like to ensure that a loved one with special needs gets the care they deserve, you’re going to have to turn to trusts instead of trying to include it in a will.
WHAT SHOULD YOU PUT IN A WILL?
This is probably the most important reason you have for wanting to create a will. Usually, if you die without leaving behind a will, your minor children will go to the care of the closest blood relative they have. Sometimes, this might not be the ideal outcome. By naming a guardian for your children on your will, you can be assured that they will be cared for by a person you chose and trust.
To make sure that your heirs will receive what you would like them to have and to ensure that they will be safe from identity theft, you will have to write about every legal detail connected to your family. Your will should include the location of original birth and marriage certificates and passports, Social Security numbers, medical and adoption records (if applicable) and legal names. You may want to include their contact numbers and make sure that that is the best way to reach them. The same should be done to any of the beneficiaries, executor, witnesses, insurance companies and financial advisors who will play a part in your will.
REAL PROPERTIES AND ASSETS
While you may have heirlooms that you would like a specific beneficiary to inherit, you might want to prioritize your “real properties” first. These refer to homes and buildings and these require more time and effort to pass on. It would be a good idea to get professional legal advice as you might be advised to either how to include it in your will or create a trust depending your situation. If it’s deemed that you can include it in your will, don’t forget to detail all the necessary legal information like taxes and deeds of your property.
When including your assets like vehicles and other valuable items, you will also have to include serial numbers, the location of the registration forms and any legal documents that came with it. For example, if you want to pass on a car, you’ll have to include the make and model and of course, who gets to take it home. Your financials are also counted as assets. Detail the sensitive information such as the bank account numbers, stocks and investments.
LIABILITIES AND BILLS
Your death does not make your taxes and bills disappear. To prevent billing companies and government agencies from chasing your family because accumulated fees, detail any pending payments that you might not finish. Include the location of contracts and the specific amount of your loans. If you can track down a detailed history of your payments, it would help your family in protecting themselves from loan sharks and overpayment. Remember to include the contact numbers of the companies. You can also detail the amounts you’ve lent to others and when they should pay the debts.
Being prepared for several emergencies is something that comes in handy especially if there are complete details outlined in your will. If you have an emergency shelter and supplies, make sure that your family will know the exact location and the items in it. If you have set up a bank account that contains emergency money, you’ll also have to give the details of which bank, the account number and who will be eligible to access it. Including emergency plans in your will gives your family a safety net even in the event of your death. It’s the best way to make sure that they will at least have some form of foundation in case their safety is threatened.
EXECUTORS, BENEFICIARIES, WITNESSES AND PROPERTY CUSTODIANS
Do not forget to name primary and substitute executors. It can be your spouse, lawyer, financial advisor or anyone you trust to be responsible. Your will cannot be carried out without an executor. It will also be scrapped if your will does not have at least two witnesses. Their signatures and testimonies will play an important role especially if for whatever reason, your will is suspected to be fabricated. It is very important to remember not to name your beneficiaries as witnesses as they will have to relinquish any claim on anything that you might have wanted to pass down to them.
If you’re going to name a minor child as your beneficiary to some properties, you might want to name a property custodian to manage it until such time that your child can take over. This ensures that that the property will not be in jeopardy even before your child grows old enough to inherit it fully.
HOMESTEAD JOURNALS AND PET IDENTIFICATION
If you own a farm or estate, you will have to update seasonal logs regarding where, when and what you do to the property, how everything is done, development projects and future plans and anything related to the supplies like inventory and details regarding suppliers and emergency stocks. For the animals in your homestead, you might want to include veterinary records as well as the contact numbers of the clinics you go to.
Though your pets cannot be beneficiaries, you can detail who you want to take over in caring for them in your will. Name the guardian and include all the details that they will have to know to continue caring for them.
FINAL WISHES, LAST LETTERS AND CHARITY
Though this may be optional, including final wishes and last letters may help your family through the grieving process. You may want to write them separate letters that detail your final wishes from them. Let them know about the things you weren’t able to say and the things you wish for them to accomplish in their lifetime. It might take some effort but it’s always a good idea to let your family know that you care and love them even beyond death.
You may also want to give some of your assets to charities. Detail which charity will receive what and who you’d like to manage those assets.
WHAT ARE THE DOS AND DON’TS OF WRITING A WILL?
- Do take the time and effort to make a detailed will. It’s not something you can accomplish overnight and you should never rush making one.
- Do hire a professional solicitor or lawyer to help you through the process and ensure that your will is legally recognized.
- Do choose your executors, beneficiaries and witnesses carefully. A will is a sensitive document with information and identification that can be stolen before it can be passed down to the right people.
- Do make it a habit to review and update your will. It won’t do anyone good if for example, you name a beneficiary who has died before the will can be carried out.
- Do give clear instructions and directives in a way that cannot be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Not doing so could result to unnecessary disputes.
- Do keep your will in a fireproof safe or in a waterproof bag in the freezer. If you choose the fireproof safe, make sure that executor knows the combination.
- Don’t make an secondary, substitute or alternative will. It’s never a good idea to rely solely on digital copies. It’s also not a good idea to make an alternative will and stating that it should be carried out if the original will fails. That can lead to confusion and worse, family feuds.
- Don’t use DIY kits in making a will. You will run a higher risk of errors and in the worst possible situation, your will might not be recognized at all.
- Don’t change anything in your will after it has been signed by you and your witnesses. You will need prepare a codicil or you might be asked to write a new will altogether especially if the changes you wish to be made are about the major parts of it.
- Don’t keep your will safe in a safety deposit box. The only way for your executor to access your safety deposit box is for them to apply and be granted probate which can only be granted through your will in which you named the executor.
- Don’t forget to make original copies of your will to make sure that you will at least have backups in case your primary copy is destroyed. You can give a copy to your attorney but remember that the executor will need to submit the original in probate court.
- Don’t postpone writing a will. You may never get the chance to ensure guardianship over your children and your properties if you keep postponing it.
When you think about writing a will, the best guideline is to remember that this legal document is your way of making sure that your family will be taken care of in the event of your death. This thought will help motivate you to completing the process and keeping your will safe and sound.