Human nature being what it is, we all have our list of things we’d rather put off for another day (hello, moldering gym membership). Too often, writing a will can fall into this category – and it shouldn’t. Drawing up a last will and testament doesn’t have to be overly complicated or arduous; like many tasks we avoid, the toughest part is getting started. If you’re a senior who has put this off, or a child of elderly parents struggling with the task, we’re here to help walk you through the process and get you pointed in the right direction!
Your first step is to determine whether you need to retain counsel, or if your circumstances are simple enough to draw things up on your own – and there are advantages to both. Generally speaking, you’re better off hiring a lawyer if you or your parent own a small business; have been remarried; have assets in multiple states or countries; have assets worth over $2M, or have reason to believe the will might be contested. If none of these conditions exist, and you’re dealing with the straightforward transfer of small assets to one person (for example), then you may be fine with using a reputable online site like LegalZoom or Nolo. If you go this route and want added reassurance, you might also be able to ask a lawyer to review your will for a small fee.
Next, you or your parent will want to make some key determinations:
- Select beneficiaries: the question of who inherits your primary assets might be a simple one; if you’re married, for example, all jointly-held assets like a home and bank accounts automatically transfer to the spouse. And retirement accounts and life insurance policies already have designated beneficiaries. Last will beneficiaries are named for singly-owned assets or accounts, as well as objects that you want to pass on – a necklace, for example, or a piece of furniture.
- Name an executor: This person will be solely responsible for carrying out the wishes you’ve specified in your will once you’re gone. You may want to consider hiring a neutral party, like a lawyer or a bank, to avoid family squabbles. If you do designate a family member, be specific about whether she is to be compensated for her time; the role of executor can be time-consuming and last months.
- Designate who gets what: Don’t be afraid to get specific about that wedding dress or armoire; the more you spell out ahead of time, the less stressful and contentious the settlement process will be. Relying on people’s memories for who gets which sentimental object is often one of the biggest headaches for surviving family members – do them all a favor and write it down!
- Name witnesses: You’ll need your will witnessed and signed by people over 18 years of age. Get clear on your specific state’s requirements as to how many witnesses you need, and whether they’re allowed to be beneficiaries themselves. The role of witnesses is to testify to your valid participation in the document and speak on your behalf if necessary, to protect your wishes once you’re gone.
Once you’ve got your document signed and notarized, take the important step of designating a safe storage location known to your executor and one trusted family member.
Want more information on will creation and estate planning for seniors? The AARP website is a great resource with lots of helpful links.