For most Americans, end-of-life planning is the last thing they want to think about. Who can blame them? Confronting our mortality is depressing and sometimes even frightening, especially when combined with taking stock of our finances. Perhaps that's why less than half of adults in the U.S. have a will.
What happens when someone passes without a will?
When someone dies without a will, their assets become "interstate," which means they'll be divided according to state law. In most states, after a lengthy and expensive probate process, personal estates go to the closest heirs, regardless of the deceased's wishes and how much family strife it might cause.
So, you can see why taking control of your legacy planning is paramount, but how does one go about end-of-life preparedness?
How to get started on a will
One reason people hesitate to write a will is the perception that they'd need to hire an attorney. While an attorney is suitable for people with large or complicated estates, most can plan their estates independently.
Wills don't even have to be written on a legal form. Have you ever seen a movie where a person writes a will on a bar napkin? You might be surprised to learn that that didn't come from a filmmaker's imagination. Even a handwritten (or "holographic") note will suffice in some states, as long as the wording is correct and there are witnesses.
Fortunately, many online and in-store options make estate planning affordable and completely legal. You can either go to an office supply store or do a Google search for will kits. Make sure they ask you to specify your state since laws vary. You can start from scratch without a will kit, but you'll have to brush up on your state's laws.
What to include in your will
Your will should be titled "Last Will and Testament." Then include your full legal name and age and declare that you are "of competent and sound mind." and that this is your "last will and testament and revokes all previously made wills and codicils."
Next, choose your beneficiaries. Typically, beneficiaries include a spouse and or children, but that's not always the case. Many wills have more than one beneficiary and alternatives if something happens to the primary beneficiary.
Choose a legal guardian
If you have underaged children or even pets, choose a guardian. It's usually a good idea to include an alternate guardian as well. Make sure your choices are okay with it.
Choose an executor
An executor is someone who will work with the probate court to ensure that your end-of-life wishes are carried out. The executor may or may not be a beneficiary. Once again, make sure the person you choose is willing.
Think about a residuary clause
Your will can include pretty much anything, as long as it's legal. For example, you could stipulate that only you want green M&Ms served at your funeral.
Have two witnesses sign
Witness requirements vary from state to state, so check first, but two witnesses are usually enough. The witnesses should not be beneficiaries. Some states also require that wills be notarized.