It’s difficult thinking about death and dying and about wills and estate planning when you’re young and starting a family or when you feel in perfectly good health. That might explain why nearly 60 percent of Americans do not have a will, according to a recent national survey conducted by FindLaw.com, the nation’s leading online resource for legal information.
The process of drawing up a will and an estate plan is not like it’s often portrayed in the movies or on TV. It can involve a number of complex decisions, ranging from how to distribute a lifetime of assets to giving specific directions to your legal guardian about end-of-life decisions, such as whether extraordinary medical care should be implemented to keep you alive, or whether you’d like to donate your organs for medical research.
Consider these tips from FindLaw.com on how to write a will and create an estate plan:
Get professional help. It’s best to get the assistance of an attorney who specializes in wills and estate planning. Writing a relatively straightforward will, with the assistance of an attorney, will cost between $750 to $1,500. Obviously, the more assets you own, the more complex the process will be. After drawing up your will, you should update it every couple years or whenever there is a significant change in your life.
Legal guardians. Most people will consider drawing up a will when they have children. One of the most profound decisions you will ever make is who will care for your children in the event of your untimely death, and this decision is expressed in a will. Along with this decision comes the decision of passing on assets to your legal guardians to provide financial support to care for your children. Over time, you may decide to choose different legal guardians to care for your children based on any number of reasons, from your meeting the needs of your child to your personal relationship with the designated legal guardians.
Who to include in your will. In your will, you will name someone you trust (the executor) to carry out the directions in your will. It’s imperative that you leave very clear and precise instructions for your executor to follow. You also will name the beneficiaries who will receive your specific bequests, which may include real estate, personal property and capital (stocks, bonds and money). People will often designate alternate beneficiaries in the event that their elected beneficiaries do not survive.
What to include in your will. Some people give their personal assets directly to another person, while others will have their assets sold – with the value divided among the beneficiaries. A beneficiary also can include an organization, such as your church, a school or a non-profit. Funeral arrangements are not included in a will.
Internet passwords and PIN numbers. To make it easier for the person you designate to fulfill your will, FindLaw.com recommends writing down and storing passwords and PIN (personal identification number) numbers of important accounts in a safe deposit box, or with the law firm with which you file your will. This is important because some online services will not grant anyone access to a deceased person’s account due to privacy laws.
Health care directives. As you draw up a will, you should also write up an advanced health care directive, which protects your right to refuse any medical treatment that you do not want, or to request treatment that you do want, in the event that you lose the ability to make decisions for yourself.
Health care power of attorney. The person you designate to execute your will may be different from the person you designate to make health care decisions for you in the event that you can’t. If this is the case for you, ensure that you also draw up a health care power of attorney.
Beneficiary forms with banks. File beneficiary forms with banks and brokerages to ensure that your assets are payable upon death.
Passing ownership. If you own a business, it’s important to create a plan for the transfer of ownership of the business in the event of your unexpected death. There are two key decisions to consider: Do you want your ownership position in the business to remain in your family or do you want to have the business sold to another party (those who may own a share of the business)? Second, who do you want to operate the business if you’re not there – a member of your family or a professional manager who is not related to your family?
Don’t wait; discuss your estate plans with your heirs. It’s an awkward conversation to have, but it’s essential to making sure your heirs and beneficiaries understand your intentions for the dispersal of your estate upon your death. This is also a good time to talk about your wishes for your funeral (cremation or burial), as well as your feelings about organ donation.