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Most people know it’s important to have a will, but are too nervous to get the process started because they don’t know how to write a will. Writing a will may seem like a daunting task, but by following a few simple steps it can be easily accomplished—and can leave you with a feeling of great accomplishment.
What is a Will?
Simply stated, a will is a legal document that instructs people what to do with your money and property in the event of your death. If you have minor children (under 18 years old) or dependant adult children, a will is the way you’ll name a guardian for them—someone who will take care of them and raise them if you’re gone. A will can be used to ensure that your loved ones receive the assets that you wish to leave them—whether that’s valuable items, such as money, real estate, and vehicles, or items that don’t necessarily have significant monetary value but have sentimental value, such as family heirlooms. Wills can also be used to transfer business assets and investments, or to plan for charitable donations.
Why Do I Need to Write a Will?
There are many reasons why it’s so important to learn how to write a will. Creating a will can give you a huge feeling of relief knowing that you’ve done everything you can to plan for the future. No one wants to be a burden to their family, and by creating a will you’re ensuring that your family will not be left guessing at a time when they’ll likely be grieving and feeling overwhelmed. If you have minor children, you can rest assured that they’ll be taken care of by the people you name as guardians in your will—the people you choose to raise your kids if you’re gone—rather than letting the courts decide. And by creating a will, you can also help prevent any tension that may arise among family members fighting over possessions and family heirlooms (trust us, it happens more often than you’d think) and instead give them a chance to focus on dealing with their grief.
How Do I Write a Will?
Now that you know the importance of having a will, it’s time to understand how to write a will. It only takes 5 steps, so no need to be nervous about starting the process.
Step 1: Naming Beneficiaries, aka Who Gets Your Stuff?
The first step in writing a will is to think about who you want to receive your property and assets—in other words, who you’ll name as your beneficiaries. You can choose various types of beneficiaries including your spouse, your children, your siblings, institutions and even pets. (If there is a family member who you specifically do not want to receive anything, it’s important to clearly state that in your will, too.) You can divide your assets however you want among your beneficiaries. For example, you can leave everything to your spouse, or leave some specific gifts to specific people and the rest to your spouse. Or you can leave everything to your children in equal (or unequal) shares, or leave some specific gifts to specific people and the rest to your children in equal or (unequal) shares. Remember that it’s entirely up to you to decide who gets what.
Helpful tip: Legally, anyone who witnesses the signing of a will can’t be named as a beneficiary…so make sure your brother or best friend isn’t a witness, unless you don’t want to leave them anything.
Step 2: Naming an Executor, aka Who’s the Most Detail-Obsessed Person You Know?
Next, you have to choose an executor—someone who’ll be responsible for ensuring that the people named in your will actually receive their inheritances, as well as paying any debts or taxes on behalf of your estate. An executor can be a responsible friend or family member, a trusted colleague, or a professional, such as an estate attorney or a financial advisor. Closing an estate can be a lengthy and arduous process, and in cases of complex estates people often provide compensation for the executor in the form of an hourly rate or a percentage of assets.
Helpful tip: If you hire a professional as your executor, there’s a good chance there’ll be a fee involved, typically between 2% and 4% of your assets.
Step 3: Naming a Guardian, aka Who’s Going to Raise Your Kids in a Worst-Case Scenario?
Choosing a guardian is usually the toughest decision to make when writing a will—but if you have minor children or dependants, it’s the most important decision. The question you have to answer is: who’s going to raise your kids if you die? If you’re married, it’s probably your spouse. If you’re divorced, it’s probably your ex-spouse. If you don’t have a spouse or your ex-spouse isn’t an option, then you’ve got some thinking to do. Consider all your options. Choosing a guardian can be difficult for many people, especially in cases of choosing one family member over another, or choosing a friend over a family member. Keep in mind that the decision you’re making is first and foremost about your child’s welfare.
Helpful tip: In order to be as thorough as possible, you’ll want to name not only a guardian, but also a successor guardian, in case your first choice can’t serve for any reason.
Step 4: Get Your Will Witnessed and Notarized, aka The Final Step To Making Your Will Legal
Once you’ve decided on your beneficiaries, chosen your executor, and named a guardian, it’s time to make your will legit. This means you need to have two people sign the will as witnesses, and then get the document notarized. Your witnesses must be at least 18 years old and, in many states, they cannot be people who stands to inherit anything in the will—so bring people who aren’t named as beneficiaries. In addition, you need a third person who can notarize your will. You can find a notary at the bank, the post office, or a government office.
Helpful tip: Do not forget this step! You’ve already done the hard work of making tough decisions—now make it legal and make it count!
Step 5: Store Your Will, aka Make Sure the People Who Need Your Will Can Find It When the Time Comes
After you’ve collected all of the required signatures, you need to keep your will in a safe and secure place that is easily accessible. You can store your will In a personal safe in your home, in a locked filing cabinet, or really in any place you feel comfortable. We recommend Everplans as a safe and convenient place to digitally store your will and other extremely important documents. (Not to toot our own horn, but we’re pretty good at this…it’s actually our entire reason for existence.) And if you hire a professional executor, they will also keep a copy of your will on file.
Regardless of where you keep your will, let your loved ones know the location so that they can easily access it when the time comes. And if you store your will in a location that requires a combination, password, or key for entry, you have to share that information as well or else your will won’t be of much assistance when it’s needed!
Helpful tip: Do not store your will in a safe deposit box. Unless the box is jointly managed—and your survivors are authorized to access the safe deposit box—the bank will likely require a court order to access the box, and that could take a long time and cause major headaches for your family.
Bonus Step: Writing an Ethical Will, aka The Most Important Letter You’ll Ever Write to Your Family
A will is a legal document, and we’re talking about how to write a will because putting legal measures in place to take care of your family is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. But it’s silly to pretend that this isn’t an emotional topic—and when the time comes to use your will, we guarantee your family will be feeling very emotional. One way to acknowledge the emotional reality of your will is to attaching a personal letter, also called an “ethical will” (a cold name for something with so much heart, if you ask us).
At Everplans we call it “Letter To Your Family,” and it’s the place where you get the chance to explain the decisions in your will, express your hopes for how your assets will be used, and discuss how your children will be raised—as well as share your your values, experiences, and life lessons with your family, friends and anyone else close to you in this world. The thought of this letter gives us happy chills and misty eyes, because this is the culmination of all your hard work. Not just in writing a will, but in life and what you pass on to future generations.
Helpful tip: Life is always changing, and your will may need to change at some point to reflect any changes you’ve experienced. Remember to revisit your will every few years to make any changes that you may deem necessary.