A last will and testament lets you leave an inheritance for your loved ones
Most people can benefit from a will even if they only have a few things they want to leave someone else
A will lets you name a guardian for minor children
In many cases, writing a will is actually not that difficult if you have a relatively simple financial setup. Of course, if you have complex needs, you probably already know that you need an estate lawyer or you already have one on the bench. In fact, you can do a lot just by filling in blank spots on a free will form — basically, a very morbid Mad Lib — but you may not necessarily want to. Free wills can leave a lot up to chance, and you may not be able to tailor them to your situation.
Before you start filling out legal documents, think about your answers to the following five questions:
1. Where are your kids going to go?
One of the big reasons that people make wills is to make sure their kids will receive money, houses, and everything else as beneficiaries. Additionally, a will lets you appoint someone to take care of your kids, a guardian, in case both you and your spouse pass away.
Learn what a guardian does and how to choose one.
2. Where's your stuff going to go?
You can use a will to distribute all of your assets in your estate — your bank account, your retirement account, your house, etc. The people you name to receive assets are your beneficiaries, and they can be your children, extended family, friends, or a charity.
You don't have to name every single item you own in your will. But sometimes you want the big, important stuff (like jewelry, family heirlooms, a car) to go to certain people. Your will allows you to write down your wishes and make those specific bequests, because just telling your kids who gets what won't hold up in court.
Consider getting a trust
If you have more specific instructions about how a beneficiary should receive your assets, it might be an opportunity to set up a trust. A trust, in its most basic form, is a legal entity that holds your asset until you say otherwise. The trust lays down the rules for when your beneficiary can access the money, how they can access it, and who's going to control that access. Not everyone needs a trust, but trusts offer certain benefits that wills don’t, like avoiding probate.
Read more about wills vs trusts.
3. Who's making sure it all happens?
You need someone to carry out the terms of the will and execute your wishes. The executor — also called your personal representative — 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, such as notifying government agencies, filing your taxes, and performing other bureaucratic and administrative tasks related to settling your estate. That means you want your executor to be 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.
Read more about what an executor does.
4. Do you need asset protection or to lower taxes?
If you're trying to achieve any sort of tax planning for the future, you'll likely need more than just a will. Other estate planning measures, like an irrevocable trust, can provide you with robust tax advantages, whether it's limiting estate tax, capital gains, and personal income tax, or protecting your assets from creditors. You’ll need to hire an estate lawyer to help create one.
5. What happens if you don't have a will?
When a deceased person doesn’t have a will or an estate plan, then a court can determine who receives their assets. Surviving spouses and next of kin are typically your heirs. If you're not married, your significant other, including a civil partner in some states, may not have the right to an inheritance.
Learn more about what happens if you die without a will.
How to actually write a will
You can create a will without a lawyer or paying attorney prices, with Policygenius, which gives you a state-specific will tailored to your situation. After making your will, you should have it witnessed and notarized. Also consider getting other estate planning documents to prepare for the future.