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4 questions to ask yourself when writing a will

Est. 4 min read

I used to think that writing a will was as easy as quickly writing down on a napkin who you wanted to own all of your stuff after you die and getting some stranger to sign it as a witness. Then the detective has to track down the stranger and find out if they had something to do with your murder, and it’s possible I read too many detective stories as a child.

In any case, writing a will is actually not that difficult, assuming you have a relatively simple financial setup. (Of course, if you have complex needs, you probably already know that you need a lawyer or you already have one on the bench.) In fact, you can do a lot will writing just by filling in blank spots on a form — basically, a very morbid Mad Lib.

But before you start filling out legal documents willy nilly, think about your answers to the following four questions:

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Where are your kids going to go?

If you don’t have kids, you can skip straight to the next question, but let’s be real: the big reason us Average Joes and Janes write wills is to make sure our kids get our money, our houses, and our CD collections.

And if you’re sitting here thinking, “Oh, it’ll be fine, my spouse will take care of the kids,” you clearly haven’t had a nightmare about both of you dying in a car accident. It happens — that’s literally how the Roald Dahl book The Witches starts and we all know how that ends up.

That’s why it’s a good idea to name a backup guardian. When you name a guardian, you frequently have to explain in your will why this person is going to make a good guardian and the relationship between the guardian and your child. This might be easy — you could name a sibling the guardian, for example — or you might end up having to explain why your former fraternity brother Jerry is capable of raising a child.

Oh, and make sure you tell your backup guardian that you’re putting them in your will. You really don’t want them to be surprised about that.

Where’s your stuff going to go?

Obviously you don’t have to name every single item you own in your will. That would get boring really, really quickly. But sometimes you want the big, important stuff — jewelry, family heirlooms, the aforementioned CD collection — to go to specific people. Your will is the ideal time to write all of this down, because just telling your kids, “Oh yeah, Kyle gets the TV,” doesn’t hold up in court.

Who’s going to get the money?

Of course, when we talk about “the money,” we’re talking about all of your assets here — your bank account, your retirement account, your house, etc. If you’re married, your assets will typically go over to your spouse. But you can also choose to leave some of your assets to your children, extended family, or a charity.

You can also use this opportunity to set up a trust. A trust, in its most basic form, is a legal agreement about some sort of asset. In this example, let’s say it’s $200,000 from a life insurance policy that you want to set aside for a college education. The trust lays down the rules for when your child can access the money, how they can access it, and who’s going to control that access.

Trusts can be super useful, but they’re not the easiest thing in the world to set up. You’ll probably want to talk to a legal professional about this instead of doing it all yourself.

Who’s making sure it all happens?

This document you’re writing is completely worthless unless someone is around to execute your wishes — hence, the wisdom of choosing a will executor!

Your will executor — also called your personal representative by people who don’t want to repeat the word executor all the time — is in charge of making sure that everything in the will happens the way you want it to happen. They also deal with the probate court process, notifying government agencies, and a bunch of other bureaucratic stuff.

That means you want your personal representative to be super organized. Hopefully, you have at least one responsible friend or child who can be trusted to deal with this, and if not, you can appoint a lawyer and carve out a percentage of your estate to be turned over as payment. (Honestly, you should pay any third-party who executes your will. And what’s it matter to you, anyway? You can’t take it with you!)

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How to actually write that will

First, grab a pen and paper.

Ha ha, just kidding, we live in the digital age now and paper is for suckers. There’s a pretty cool will creation service called Willing (get it?) that we like. It’s free for a basic will, which is pretty awesome. You can read our full review here or skip straight ahead to writing your will.

You can also find a bunch of will templates that follow your specific state laws online, with varying degrees of quality. A quick Google search will turn up dozens, maybe hundreds, of resources that you can sift through.

Or you can just go visit a lawyer, if you like chatting to a human about this kind of stuff. A lawyer can also help you set up a trust or help answer some questions you may have.

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Published on February 9, 2016

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Adam Cecil writes for PolicyGenius, a digital insurance brokerage trying to make sense of insurance for consumers. You can read more of his writing on his site.
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