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How to Make Writing a Will Easy
A will is an important estate planning document for you and your family. It has several functions: to distribute your assets, nominate an executor, and plan for minor children. Although it is a critical document, writing your own will does not have to any more difficult or complicated than you want it to be, especially if your estate is relatively small.
Preparing to Draft Your Will
Create a checklist.Write out the three purposes of a will: to distribute assets, nominate an executor to pay debts, and plan for minor children. Even if you don’t need a will to accomplish all three, you should give some time to thinking about each.
- Your circumstances could change. Even if you have no assets now, you might in the future. Also, you may have children years after you draft the will.
Meet the age requirement.Most states require that a person be at least 18 years old to make a valid will. If you are under 18, check the requirements of your state.
Identify your assets.The primary purpose of a will is to transfer assets. Without a will, those assets will pass according to state law to your heirs (typically spouse and/or children). You should create a list of both specific assets (things) and liquid assets (money).
- Draft a list of specific assets by walking around your house. Note objects of value that people would want: vehicles, the house itself, art, and jewelry.
- Draft a list of liquid assets. Liquid assets include savings accounts, checking accounts, cash deposits, and savings bonds.
- Note that some assets may transfer outside of probate. For example, if you own a checking account or a house in joint tenancy with a spouse, your spouse will be the sole owner of the property once you die, even without a will.
Review the laws of your state.The laws of your state can have a big impact on how your assets are distributed after your death. Review your state's laws in these areas by searching online or contacting an attorney:
- 'Community property'. Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin are "community property states." In these states, property is generally either community property (acquired during marriage) or separate property (acquired before marriage, or by gift or inheritance). In your will, you can give away up to half of your community property, but the other half belongs to your spouse.
- You may be able to transfer certain assets without a will. For instance, some states allow you to transfer your principal residence directly to your heirs.
- State law determines how many witnesses you need when you sign your will. Most require two, while some require three.Make sure that you have the right number of witness so that your will is valid.
Check financial instruments.Some assets already have beneficiaries designated. If you have purchased life insurance or opened a retirement account you undoubtedly appointed a beneficiary. This designation will trump whatever you have in the will.
- These assets will not need to be distributed through the will. Nevertheless, don't forget about these assets when you are deciding who gets what.
- Review who you named as the beneficiary on each policy or account. If you need to update the beneficiary on a life insurance policy, contact the life insurance company.
Have your property appraised.You may not know how much your real estate, vehicles, or jewelry is worth. Have a professional appraisal done. Mark how much each asset is worth on your asset list for easy reference.
List debts.The executor or personal representative will be responsible for paying your debts out of your estate. Listing your debts will also give you a good idea of the size of your estate.
Determining Beneficiaries, Executors, and Guardians
Choose beneficiaries.Get out your list of assets and work through who you should leave each asset to. You can make specific bequests as well general bequests.
- A specific bequest leaves a specific piece of property to a named individual. For example, “I leave my 1965 Chevrolet Corvette to my son, Charles Kennedy” is a specific request.
- General requests list only the amount, not the source.For example, a gift of ,000 to a friend is a general bequest because the money could come from many different sources.
- Ask your heirs if they specifically want pieces of property for sentimental reasons. If they do, include it in the will.
- You do not have to leave every piece of property that you own to a specific beneficiary. Instead, after making specific bequests, you can name beneficiaries for the remainder, which is called the “residuary estate.”
Name an executor.The executor (also called a “personal representative”) will administer the estate. She will pay off debts, preserve and distribute assets, defend the estate in court actions, and pay necessary taxes.
- Think carefully about who you choose. Since the executor will handle the finances of the estate, you should pick someone with a record of sound financial management.
- You might want to avoid naming a family member. A professional executor might be preferable when you have competing factions in your family. The professional should be above the fray.
- Larger estates may do well using an attorney or a bank as the executor.
- For smaller estates (such as those worth less than half a million dollars) a family member, such as a spouse, may suffice.
Choose a guardian for your minor children.You can appoint guardians for your minor children in the event that they are under 18 when you die. You can also appoint a conservator to look after your children's assets. Talk to those people to make sure that they are willing to accept that responsibility.
- Plan to appoint a guardian to raise your children in the event that both you and your spouse die. Consider their values, lifestyle, and religious beliefs,as well as how comfortable your child already is with the person, and whether or not your children would have to move far away from other family to live with the new guardian.
- If your spouse survives you, he or she will continue to take care of the children. You may still want to consider leaving some of your assets directly to the children instead of your spouse, Your spouse could remarry and have more children, in which case your children may ultimately get less of your estate when your spouse dies. Discuss these possibilities with your spouse and plan accordingly.
Name a conservator of assets.Minor children cannot take assets until they reach 18. You may want to name the guardian as the conservator.
Starting to Draft Your Will
Title the document.Give your will a simple title, so anyone who reads it will immediately understand its significance. Something like "Will of John Doe" will suffice.
Identify yourself.Give your name and location. For example, "I, John Doe, a resident of California, Alameda County, declare that this is my will."
- If you believe that there may eventually be some confusion about your identity (for instance, if you have a common name), you can add additional identifying information, such as your birth date, social security number, or a more specific address.
Make a revocation of any previous wills.This provision clearly states that this document is your will, and that no earlier will, codicil (amendment to a will), or other document is to be used. For example, "I revoke all wills and codicils that I have previously made."
- Include this provision even if you have never made a will before. The provision revoking previous wills helps prevent confusion and even attempts at fraud.
Give your marital status.If you are married, identify your spouse. For example, "I am married to Jane Doe." If you are single, state as much. For example, "I am a single man."
Disposing of Your Estate
Make specific gifts.Specific gifts are gifts of particular pieces of property. You can also name an alternative recipient in the event that the intended beneficiary dies before you do. For example, "I leave my stamp collection to Dave Smith. If Dave Smith does not survive me, I leave this property to Sally Johnson."
- You can also leave money as a specific gift if you specify what source the money is to be drawn from. For example, you can leave ,000 from your Wells Fargo checking account, or the 0 in your sock drawer. If you do not specify the source, the gift is called a "general gift."
- Ask your heirs if they specifically want pieces of property for sentimental reasons. If they do, include it in the will.
Make general gifts.General gifts are gifts of liquid assets (money) from an unspecified source of funds. For example, "I leave ,000 to Dave Smith." Specific gifts take precedence over general gifts. This means that your specific gifts are made first. Then, if there are not enough assets left in your estate to make all of your general gifts, the general gifts will not be made.
Name an executor.Name your executor here, and choose an alternate if the named person (or lawyer or bank) is unwilling or unable to take that responsibility.For example, "I name Jenny Jones to serve as my executor. If Jenny Jones is unwilling or unable to serve as executor, I name Steven Clark to serve as my executor."
- If your executor is to be paid for his or her services, specify the payment details. For example, "My executor shall be paid for her services at a rate of per hour."
Specify the executor's powers.This clause gives your executor authority to manage your estate until all distributions of gifts have been made. Specify that your executor has the power to file a petition in court for the administration of the state, but also instruct that the process should be done as simply as possible.
- For example, "I direct my executor to take all actions legally permissible to have the probate of my will done as simply and as free of court supervision as possible under the laws of the state having jurisdiction over this will, including filing a petition in the appropriate court for the independent administration of my estate."
Describe how your debts and expenses shall be paid.You can specify what assets you want to use to pay any debts and expenses (including medical care costs and funeral expenses. If you do not specify a source, then your debts will be paid from your residuary estate, and then from your gifts to others, if necessary.
- For example, "I direct that all debts and expenses owed by my estate be paid using the following assets: Account #666777 at Cudahy Savings Bank."
Describe how any taxes shall be paid.Your estate and/or your beneficiaries may owe estate or inheritance taxes upon your death. You can specify a source from which those taxes are to be paid, the same as you would for debts and expenses.
- For example, "I direct that all estate and inheritance taxes assessed against the property in my estate or against my beneficiaries to be paid using the following asset: Account #939494050 at the Independence Bank, Central Branch."
- Estate and gift taxes are a complicated area of the law. If your assets are modest, you may be exempt from such taxes. However, you should consult with a tax professional for estate planning services, especially if you have substantial assets.
Appoint a guardians for any minor children.If your children are under 18 upon your death and the other parent does not survive you, your children will need a guardian to care for and raise them. For example, "If Jane Doe does not survive me, I name Sally and Donald Johnson as guardians for my children, Sam Doe and Jim Doe."
Completing Your Will
Use a severability clause.This clause is standard language that says that even if some part or language in your will is invalid, the rest of the document will remain in effect. For example, "If any provision of this will is held to be invalid, that shall not affect any other provision that can be given effect without the invalid provision."< ref></ref>
Add a signature block.You will need a place to sign. The signature block should include your name, the date, and a declaration that you are making the will voluntarily.
- For example, "I, John Doe, the testator, sign my name to this document, this 12th day of August, 2015. I declare that I sign and execute this instrument as my last will, that I sign it willingly, and that I execute it as my free and voluntary act. I declare that I am of the age of majority or otherwise legally empowered to make a will, and under no constraint or undue influence. Signature:_______________"
Add another block for your witnesses.Most states require two witnesses, while some require three. The signature block should contain a statement that the witnesses saw you sign your name to the will, as well as the witnesses' personal information and signatures.
- In most states, your witnesses must be adults, and must not be beneficiaries under your will.
- For example, "We, the witnesses, sign our names to this document, and declare that the testator willingly signed and executed this document as the testator's last will. In the presence of the testator, and in the presence of each other, we sign this will as witnesses to the testator's signing. To the best of our knowledge, the testator is of the age of majority or otherwise legally empowered to make a will, is of sound mind, and is under no undue influence. We declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct, this 12th day of August, 2015, at Santa Ana, California."
- First Witness
- Sign your name:_________________
- Print your name:_________________
- City, State:_____________________
- Second Witness (and third, if necessary)
Making Sure Your Will is Effective
Hire an attorney.Consider hiring an attorney to draft your will, or at least to review the will you have drafted. Wills with errors or ambiguities can cost families a great deal of money in legal fees and taxes, so it may be worth it to pay a professional to make sure that your will is as good as it can be.
- To find reduced-cost assistance, contact your local bar association and ask about pro bono or reduced-fee legal representation. Also meet with attorneys for a free consultation.
Find a will template or form.If you can’t afford a lawyer and you have a simple estate, you can draft a will yourself. You will need a template for your state. There are many different kind of will templates, but some such as fill-in-the-blank forms and statutory wills do not come with clear instructions. Seek better options that streamline the process:
- A will book or CD. These often have downloadable forms specific to each state, and they come with clear instructions.
- Will software. The software (which you download to your computer) typically includes an interview. The interview helps customize the will to your specific needs. A key benefit of will software is that you can revisit the will and make changes at no cost.
- Online will programs. Like will software, you proceed through an interview, which helps tailor the will to your needs.
Consult a tax attorney or estate planning professional.If you have significant assets, your estate and beneficiaries may end up owing significant estate and gift taxes. A will is one part of a comprehensive estate plan, which can include trusts, advance medical directives, and the re-titling of property to avoid transfer taxes. Even if your estate is modest, you should consider consulting an estate planning or tax professional to ensure that your wishes will be carried out upon your death.
Have your will notarized.In some states, it is helpful, though not necessary, to have your will notarized. It can make your will easier to admit in court as evidence of your wishes.To get your will notarized, sign it and have your witnesses sign in the presence of a notary.The notary will notarize your paperwork, verifying that you signed the documents in his or her presence. Bring a valid form of identification, such as a driver's license or passport, to verify your identity, and have your witnesses do the same.
- To find a notary online, visit the
- You can also find a notary public by visiting your local bank. Most banks do not charge a fee for notary services if you are a bank customer. If you are not a bank customer, you can use the bank's notary service for a small fee.
Keep your will safe.Place your will somewhere secure, like a fireproof safe, and make sure someone you trust knows how to access it. A will that goes missing or is destroyed is not very useful.
Update your will as needed.Don't forget to make changes to your will if you have a child, get married, or get divorced. You should also review your will periodically an remove any beneficiary who has died or done something that makes you want to disinherit them.
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Ive probably got another year in me, he said of how long he plans to continue traveling in his van. Once I start getting serious about making a feature film I will probably find a semi-permanent place to focus on a massive project like that. But who knows. Ive learned not to plan things too far in advance
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