What do I need to do to prepare to make a will?
A will is a document that determines what happens to your possessions after you die. If you have young children, you can use it to name their guardian if the other parent is not available. You must also appoint someone as the executor of your estate – that is, the person who will make sure that your wishes are followed.
In the largest sense, the two things you must know when you make a will are:
- What you have, and
- How you would like it to be distributed.
What decisions do I need to make?
- The first thing to do is to make a list of what you own, including real estate, bank and brokerage accounts, life insurance, pension and other retirement accounts, valuable or sentimental personal property, including art work, jewelry, family heirlooms, collections, cars, etc.
- Think about how you would like your possessions to be distributed. The people who will receive your assets are called your beneficiaries. While many people leave funds to their spouse and children, you can leave them to whomever you want. You do not have to leave equal amounts to each child, although you might want to consider family harmony if you leave unequal amounts.
- Do you have young children? If you die while they are still minors, their other parent will get (or keep) custody. But what if she or he dies at the same time or before you? You need to appoint a guardian for them.There are two decisions to make – you need to choose the guardian of the person, and the guardian of the property. They can be the same person, or two different people. In addition, you should designate alternates, in case the person you choose is not available.
The guardian of the person is the person the children will live with. This is the person who will raise them. You should choose someone whose values are similar to your own. You should also think about whether they will be able to keep all of your children together, about whether they will be able to continue other important relationships with extended family, with their school, etc.
The guardian of the property will oversee any money you leave to your child. Usually the guardian of the person and the guardian of the property are the same person, but not always. This should be someone who is unflinchingly honest, and who will keep your children’s best interests at heart. In addition, the guardian of the property should be able to keep good financial records. They might have to prepare an annual report regarding the children’s finances.
- Finally, you must choose an executor. The executor is the person who will gather all of your assets, and will make sure they get distributed the way you have specified. The executor must also be completely honest and well-organized. She or he must also be willing to follow out your instructions. The executor has a duty of loyalty to the beneficiaries and a duty to preserve the estate assets. For instance if a house is to be sold, the executor owes it to the beneficiaries to make sure that she or he obtains market value on their behalf. You must also choose an alternate executor, in case the first person you choose is not available.Once you have decided these things, you are ready for a consultation with a lawyer.Your lawyer will speak to you about more complicated issues, such as tax planning. She can help you create instruments that protect your assets for children with special needs or to shield adult children from creditors. If you have a second marriage, she can help your divide your estate fairly between your new wife and your children from your first marriage. She can talk to you about other types of accounts and other vehicles to pass assets on to your loved ones.There are certain formalities that must be followed in order for your will to be valid. Each state has unique standards. Your lawyer will make sure those are followed.Writing a will can be emotionally taxing, but good planning can avoid disputes later, ensure that your property is disposed of according to your wishes, and bring peace of mind.