When we pass on, we hope to leave our loved ones in the most consoling way possible. Creating a last will and testament is one of the wisest ways to ensure that our final wishes happen and our loved ones get our best possessions and receive the appropriate care and supervision they need.
A last will and testament is a legal document that declares your final wishes regarding the distribution of your assets and property and other matters you wish to include, such as who will care for your loved ones.
Wills are a critical part of any estate plan. They ensure that the ones we leave behind will perform our wishes according to our specifications. However, a will does not take effect until the testator — the person who made the will — passes away. In cases when the testator becomes incapacitated or needs to make provisions for his care and well-being, he may use other estate planning tools, such as a living trust or a durable power of attorney, since a will is still unenforceable.
Without a will, the law will determine who will receive your possessions and property after your death. There will be a process called intestate succession, which varies from state to state. When it comes to your loved ones, particularly minors, the court may appoint a guardian for them. Therefore it is always prudent to have a will in place to decide who gets what and who will take care of your loved ones when you are gone.
Why is a last will and testament important?
There are several advantages to having a last will. Some of the key benefits are:
Proper distribution of assets and property
A last will allows you to decide who gets your assets and property. If you do not have one in place, the state will determine who gets your possessions through a process of intestate succession, which may not necessarily reflect your wishes. Moreover, a will can assist in efficiently facilitating the distribution of your assets and property. Having a clear plan in place avoids confusion or delays that may occur in a probate process.
Reduce family conflict
Without a will, family members may start fighting over your assets, potentially causing lasting damage to relationships. A will can help reduce potential conflict among your loved ones after you pass on. You can avoid disputes among them by clearly specifying the distribution of your belongings.
Appointing a guardian for minor children
Many cases of child custody disputes arise when there is no will. If you have young children, it is crucial to appoint a guardian in your will to take care of them should something happen to you. This way, you can rest assured knowing they will have a guardian who will take care of them according to your wishes.
Making funeral arrangements
You can use your will to specify your funeral arrangements and preferences. You can include wishes for things like cremation or burial and specific instructions for your funeral service. By stipulating your decision on what to do with your body after death, you can take a load off of your loved ones during an already difficult time.
How to write a last will and testament?
While the purpose of a last will and testament remains the same, the document’s contents may vary depending on the testator’s wishes.
The steps to writing a will are as follows:
- Choose an executor. The executor should be a trusted person, as he will be responsible for making sure that your wishes will happen. Choose someone you trust implicitly to follow your instructions and act in the best interests of your beneficiaries. You may also want to name an alternate executor supposing your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve. Take note that the executor should be comfortable handling money and property.
- Make a list of your assets. You should include all real estate, personal property, financial accounts, and other valuable assets in your will. You must write accurate descriptions and values for each item. If you have debts, you may also list all you owe so that your executor knows what to pay off. You should also list any life insurance policies you have and indicate the beneficiaries of those policies.
- Choose your beneficiaries. A beneficiary is a person who will receive assets from your estate. You can leave your assets to anyone, including family members, friends, charities, or organizations. Be sure to list each item clearly and specify who you want to receive it. You can leave specific items to specific people or distribute your assets according to a percentage. Avoid using terms like “my family” or “my friends,” as doing so can create ambiguity and conflict. You should also list any contingent beneficiaries. A contingent beneficiary is a person who will only receive assets if the primary beneficiary dies before you.
- Appoint a guardian. If you have minor children, you need to appoint a guardian who will care for them when you die. The guardian should be a loving, trusted person. You may also want to name an alternate guardian supposing your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve.
- Sign and date your will. Your will is not valid unless you sign and date it. Some states require that you sign and date it in the presence of two witnesses. The witnesses must be over 18 years old and are not part of your will. There are no specific witness requirements, but choose people who do not stand to inherit anything from your will.
- Notarize your will. While not all states require notarization, it is ideal to do so, as it adds an extra layer of authenticity and avoids any challenges to the validity of your will. A notarized will also makes the probate process simpler and quicker.
Store your will in a safe place. Provide your executor with a copy and inform him where you store the original. Updating your will regularly is also necessary whenever there are significant changes in your life, such as getting married, having children, and buying property. Reviewing your will every few years is a sensible approach to keeping one.