If putting your final wishes in writing is a lower priority than cleaning the mildew from your shower grout, you’re not alone. A full 61% of Americans don’t have a Will.
It took fear of flying to bump Will-making to the top of Janeen and Luis Mesa’s to-do list. Before they boarded a flight to Texas, Luis, a novice flyer, began to worry about what would happen if his daughter from a previous marriage was left on her own. “He wanted to make sure she was cared for until she was of age,” said Janeen Mesa, of Oakland, CA. “We hand-wrote our wills and had two people witness them.”
While writing on the fly may not be the best answer, creating a Last Will and Testament doesn’t have to be an odious chore. It can be a chance to think about your hopes and dreams for the future, everything from the values you want to pass on to your children to how you want to pass on your business.
Making a Will does force you to make some important decisions—such as choosing an executor, appointing a guardian for your children, and divvying up your assets.
But it’s also helpful to remember that:
#1: You Can Have Fun With It
Christa Cywinski, a preschool director in Philadelphia, PA, got her Will done with the help of food, drink and friends. “We started talking about all the things that would be good to get down on paper, so at our next supper club we agreed to lay out all our intentions,” she said. “We had a lovely evening full of laughs, drank good wine, and got a little silly with details about memorial services, etc. Our friend the lawyer took notes and drafted wills for all five of us.”
Making the big decisions may feel a little less daunting in an informal environment, in the company of people you love. You could use it as an excuse for a date night—or even a weekend away with your partner.
#2: Good-enough Sometimes Trumps Perfection
If you’ve got a family full of artists, electricians or marine biologists rather than lawyers, CPAs and CEOs, it doesn’t mean you’re out of luck in choosing an executor to administer your will. It’s true that an executor’s duties are heavy on legal and financial details: they may include distributing your assets and possessions; paying taxes and bills on your estate; making any court appearances, administering trusts, and—if you own a family business or sole proprietorship—handling your business succession.
But a JD or MBA is not necessarily a prerequisite to execute a Will.
“I always tell people the person they choose doesn’t need to have a great deal of legal or financial savvy, but they do need to know when to get help and how to have a reasonably competent conversation with the helpers—usually a lawyer or accountant,” says Amy Shelf, a San Francisco attorney who runs “panic-free” estate planning workshops and potlucks (as in #1, above). “This often opens up the pool of people.”
In the end, diplomacy, organization and communication skills could be just as important to an executor’s job as a head for numbers. Questions of inheritance can cause tempers to flare. If your executor is also a beneficiary, questions of conflict of interest can come up. Sometimes, the best pick might be someone outside the family, or even an experienced professional (if you’re not averse to paying their fees). It’s also wise to choose a backup executor, or two, in case your first choice isn’t able to do the job when the time comes.
You can use alternates as a way to involve more people in your Will, which means that:
#3: You Don’t Always Need to Make One Choice
Unlike choosing an executor—a job that, inevitably, will be filled by someone, someday—you choose guardians in the hope that they’ll never be called on. A guardian comes into play when both biological parents or legal guardians die before a child reaches adulthood. But thinking about the devastating what-ifs can make you avoid any decision. If your children have many special people in their lives, it can also feel like a betrayal to choose one family member or friend over another.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be an either-or decision. Shelf, the estate-planning attorney, says that as long as parents lay out a clear order of priorities, they can involve multiple caregivers in their guardian choice. Naming co-guardians in different families could be challenging, but naming alternates is a way to include a variety of people you love and trust, and to allow for changing circumstances—such as aging parents and evolving family situations.
If the worst were to happen, the guardians and alternates can sit down and decide together on the best plan for the children, she says. “This builds flexibility into your plan and takes some pressure off the nomination,” she says. “I tell clients to remind potential nominees that alternates are in place, and they don’t have to serve if they can’t or don’t want to.”
Another option is to appoint separate personal guardians and property guardians. For example, if your parents are aging and you feel a close friend would give your children the care they need, you could still pick one of your parents to provide financial oversight. This can also be a way to include more family members.
And, if you want to go a step further, you can lay out your thinking in a letter attached to your Will. This letter can be as general or as specific as you like—you could state your wish that the kids spend time each year with the other side of the family or with your closest friend; that the alternate guardians provide some input; or even preferences like your aversion to violent video games. A letter might not be legally binding, but it will give guardians some guidance. As your children grow, you can add to it or rewrite it.
#4: Choosing Heirs Doesn’t Have To Be Complex, Unless You Want It to Be
Naming heirs is the heart of your Will, but deciding who gets what can be another emotional hurdle to getting it done. Who should get the family china or grandpa’s watch? Who gets the house? How much should you leave to charity? And, if you have a family business, who should inherit it?
Yet deciding on how to divvy up your assets can be as simple as you want to it be, once you understand the basics. Typically, your beneficiaries will be your spouse, children, other close family members, charities—or really anyone else you name (you may have heard about the Leona Helmsley’s $12 million bequest to her pampered white Maltese, Trouble). As for bequests—who gets what—there are several basic types: specific bequests, such as who gets the china; general bequests, which are made from the estate as a whole; and residual bequests, or whatever is left.
You can make your bequests as detailed as you like, such as having money paid out over time or putting restrictions on funds going to a prolific spender. But if you don’t have a clear idea of how you want to split up your assets, you can take the easy way out by requiring that your estate be divided equally between specific people (be forewarned, however, that this could make your Will more challenging to administer, especially if family members have their eyes on specific items). No matter what, it’s still important to name your heirs, or the court will do it for you.
Rima Robinson of Ashland, MA, said she was inspired to write her Will when her grandmother died. “She had everything very organized and it was painless—except for the death part of course,” she says. “Because I don’t have a husband or obvious beneficiary, I needed to make sure I put it all in writing.”
Keep in mind that the beneficiaries you name in your life insurance, retirement accounts, and even bank accounts will supersede your Will, so it’s best to keep them up to date. And if your estate is especially large or complex, it’s always wise to consult with an attorney.
If you’re still having trouble, remember that your can revisit your decisions, because in truth:
#5: It’s Not Really Final Until It’s Final
Despite the name—Last Will and Testament—a Will is not something you write on a stone tablet. It’s quite a flexible document that can be modified at any time with a Codicil, or rewritten entirely. In fact, estate planning attorneys recommend that you revisit your will every few years, especially if you go through major life events.
Janeen Mesa, of Oakland, said she and her husband are updating their Wills for the third time since that flight to Texas. Their oldest daughter is now an adult, their two younger children are still minors, and their assets have grown—and grown more complex. While they took a DIY approach in earlier versions, the latest version took more planning, and assistance.
It’s better to have something in writing than to wait for perfection. So stop worrying, and get started!