One of the most important thing you can do for your loved ones is to create a last will and testament. Putting together your wishes on paper gives you peace of mind and avoids unnecessary hassles. If you do not have a will prior to your death, the law of intestate succession determines how the property will be passed on to heirs. Intestate succession varies by state. Also, a judge may decide who will raise your children. However, that determination can greatly differ from the wishes of the deceased. Therefore, it is important that you create a will and know your possessions will end up in the right hands.
An attorney for 14 years, Christine Mason began her own wills and trusts practice in 2014. She provides the following tips on what you need to know when preparing to write a last will and testament.
- Write list of your assets, debts, and beneficiaries. Many attorneys will ask for this information in a questionnaire that you will be asked to complete.
- Choose your various agents, including (1) guardians for your minor children, (2) the executor of your will, (3) agent for your durable financial power of attorney, and (4) agent for your health-care power of attorney. Your executor will handle the administration and management of your estate. Your health-care power of attorney will manage health-related decisions if you become incapacitated and will carry out your end-of-life wishes. Your durable financial power of attorney will make financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. These various roles can be fulfilled by one person or by different people depending on your personal situation. Discuss these responsibilities with the prospective agents.
- Decide on whether you would like to create a standard will or set up a pour-over will with a revocable trust. A trust is a private way to pass your money, while a will must be probated, which is a public process. A wills and trusts attorney can help you determine which is more appropriate given your circumstances.
- Create the following documents 1) durable financial power of attorney 2) health-care power of attorney 3) advance medical directive and (4) will. Number 2 & 3 cover you when you become incapacitated. It is best to create all three documents and not just a will.
- Remember that your 401Ks, IRAs and insurance policies are distributed according to your beneficiary forms associated with those policies. To the extent you want these beneficiaries to mirror the beneficiaries in your will, any changes to these policies and plan occur through your plan’s administrator.
- Hand-write a funeral directive letter and include it with your estate planning documents.
- Read and review your will every 3 to 5 years or when you have major life changes (marriage/divorce, birth or adoption of a child, grandchildren) or conduct/sell a large purchase (home, boat, vehicle).
Now that you have gone through the entire process above, it’s now time to begin writing your last will and testament. Several resources are available online to help you. However, keep in mind that these types of forms have standardized language. They do not consider your personal situation, such as having a blended family (children from a previous marriage) that require special consideration. In this case, it’s best to solicit advice and hire an attorney to help you sort through the process.
Finally, to make sure your will is valid, you will need to sign it, have at least two witnesses sign it, and in some cases, have it notarized. Your will should comply with your state’s regulations.
If you’d like to follow-up with Christine on preparing a last will and testament for your family, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 703-402-0483.