When I say “will”, I’m not talking about Will Smith even though he has protected Earth from being destroyed by aliens multiple times. I’m talking about the kind of will that protects our assets.
In the last month, two famous musicians have passed away – Mac Miller and Aretha Franklin. What is the difference between the two besides one being a rapper and the other being known as the Queen of Soul? One of them – Miller, had a will and Franklin did not.
Mac Miller, even though he was 26, had a will that left his $9 million dollar fortune to his parents. Aretha Franklin, who was 50 years older than Miller at 76 and worth an estimated $80 million, died “intestate” – meaning she did not have a will at the time of her death. This means state law comes into effect to decide how her estate will be split.
Estate planning and wills are one topic not many of us think about in personal finance. After all, no one expects to suddenly pass away if we are young and perfectly healthy. We’ve got tons of other things on our minds such as paying off student loans or saving money.
According to Forbes, it is estimated that 63% of Americans do not have a will, and another 9% has a will that is out of date.
Why Do You Need A Will Anyway?
A Will Determines Who Gets What
When you die without a will, intestate succession laws determine the order that your estate will be distributed and the proportions depending on who survives you. For example, in Aretha Franklin’s situation, because she died without a spouse, her estate will be divided among her four sons. A state may specify that if a person dies with a surviving spouse and children, the spouse be given half the estate and the rest be divided among the children.
Generally, the classes of heirs are determined by the following order:
- The surviving spouse
- Descendants, which includes children, grandchildren, and so on
- Descendants of decedent’s parents, such as siblings, nieces, and nephews
- Descendants of grandparents, such as aunts, uncles, and cousins
If there are no surviving relatives, the property “escheats”, or goes to the state.
Having a will prevents family fighting in probate court over who gets what property. Plus, who really wants their hard-earned savings and family heirlooms to go all to the state. We all probably agree that we’ve given enough taxes to the state already while alive.
A will also let you decide how you want your property distributed beyond your heirs. Perhaps in addition to your children, you wish to leave gifts to friends, neighbors, your alma mater, charitable causes, or even your pet.
A Will Specifies Your Final Instructions
In addition to distributing property, a will also let you:
- Name an executor to settle your estate. The executor will distribute the deceased’s assets, arrange for payment of any final debts and expenses, file the will for probate, notify banks, government agencies, and credit cards of your death, and more. An executor can be a family member or someone who you trust. You can also include details on how the executor will be compensated if any.
- Name guardians for your children. Let’s say your children are under 18 and both you and your spouse dies in an alien invasion. A will lets you choose who you feel would best raise your children. If you don’t have children, but a pet, you can name whom your pet should go to so it doesn’t end up at the animal shelter.
- Forgive debts. You can use your will to forgive debts that a person who you’ve loaned money to so they are no longer legally required to pay the money back.
- Detail your final wishes. Perhaps you wish to be cremated or buried. Maybe you wish to be buried in a certain location. You can use your will to provide final instructions following your death, from choosing what music will be played at your funeral to who may not be invited.
What Is The Cost To Make A Will?
So you’ve decided having a will is a good idea. Great!
The next question most people ask after why they need a will is how much does one cost.
According to LegalZoom, using an attorney to draw up a will costs from $150 to $600 with the average cost being about $375.
That is a bit of money, but you shouldn’t let the idea that creating a will is too expensive or complicated to keep you from having one. After all, it could cost your loved ones a lot more should something ever happens to you.
Do you need to use a lawyer to make a will? Not really.
In addition to using an attorney, you can do it yourself using Quicken’s WillMaker Plus software, which costs about $79. Or you can use LegalZoom to do it in about 15 minutes with plans starting at $69.
If that is still too much, you can get one prepared online for free thanks to the internet. There is no software to download or additional services to sign up for. Creating a will online is as easy as filling out some interactive forms for your situation. I actually used an online site last month to create one for my mother.
Where To Go To Create A Free Will Online
Like I mentioned above, I used an online site to create a free will for my mother. There are easily dozens of sites available with some tricking you into going through filling out all the forms and then springing on you the payment requirements at the very end.
Here are a few that I recommend where you can create a will at no cost:
- FreeWill – 100% free to create your will. Takes about 20 minutes and at the end, you have the option to print a PDF or create an account to save it online
- Doyourownwill.com – Completely free. You can download your will afterward in Word or PDF format with no registration required
- Fabric Wills – Fabric is an insurance agency that sells life, accident, and health insurance. You do not need to purchase anything to create your will online, but you will need to create an account with your email address and a password before you can download your will
The below sites will let you create a will, and show you a free online preview of the completed will. You will need to signup for a trial to download or print a copy unless you really like working on your typing skills.
- eForms – Free 7-day trial plan that renews at $15 per month. If you do not wish to go through the steps of filling out the form, they have free templates available to download in Word, PDF, and Open Document Text
- LawDepot – Free 7 day trial subscription that renews at $33 per month
- RocketLawyer – Free 7 day trial that renews at $39.99 per month
My recommendation is to try several sites and go through filling out the forms to see which site best fits your needs. Perhaps one site has an option on what you want to be done with your pets and the others don’t. In the final draft of your will, you can always copy and paste sections.
What To Do After Creating Your Will
Find Two Witnesses
After you’ve drawn up your will, you will need to find two witnesses to watch you sign it and also sign the will themselves. You may even want to find a notary to notarize your will at that time. For almost all the states, two witnesses is adequate to execute your will.
Check with your own state laws to be sure.
There are restrictions on who can be a witness. Generally, each witness must be an adult and they should be “disinterested”, or in other words, they are not beneficiaries in the will. If a beneficiary does serve as a witness, the will’s gift to that person could be declared void by the court. The witnesses also must be told that the document they are signing is a will or the document will not be valid.
When signing the will, I also recommend signing in blue ink so there is no question that the document is an original and not a copy. When I created the copy for my mother, I also added boxes on the bottom of each page for everyone to initial. This will prevent someone from slipping in additional sections or swapping out pages afterwards.
Why all the requirements?
These extra formalities are needed because by the time the will takes effect, the testator who signed the will is no longer around to say whether the document being presented to the court is actually their will or not.
By having two witnesses, they can come to court and testify that the will-maker stated the document is his or her will, and that they were not under any undue influence and of sound mind when they signed the document.
What happens if the witnesses are no longer around?
If possible, you’d want to find witnesses who are younger than you so they’ll be around when the time comes. But what if you are really lucky and outlive everyone or your witnesses are nowhere to be found because they’ve entered the witness protection program?
This is where the notary comes in. By adding an additional affidavit to the will and having the witnesses and testator sign and getting it notarized turns it into a self-proving will.
Why You Should Consider A Self-Proving Will
It might be extremely difficult to locate witnesses after decades have gone by. People die, move away, get married and change their names, and more. Even if a witness is located, it could be extremely troublesome to get them to come to court if they are all the way across the country.
This is where a self-proving will comes in. By signing the affidavit in front of a notary public, who also signs the document and stamps it with an official seal, the witnesses will not need to come to court to testify to prove that the document is your last will and testament.
If this is something you are interested in doing, we tried going to Chase, Bank of America, and the post office to get my mother’s will notarized. The post office did not do notarization. Chase and Bank of America do not notarize wills. I didn’t try Wells Fargo, but I doubt they’d do it either since my local branch wouldn’t even notarize home purchase documents. We ended up getting it notarized for free at a credit union. If you are not a member of a credit union, the most convenient location would probably be The UPS Store. In my area, they were charging $4 per stamp, plus $2 if you need an employee to be a witness. There are usually two employees on staff per store, one of them being the notary public, so you’ll need to bring one additional witness.
Okay, Done. What’s Next?
After your will is signed, you will want to keep the original copy in a safe place, such as a fireproof safe or file cabinet at home. Beware about keeping it in a safe deposit box, since it could be difficult for your executor or trustee to access your box after your death.
Now let your executor know the location of your will.
You’ll want to keep your will updated of major life changes. Things such as getting married, moving to another state, having children, or getting divorced.
If you ever need to amend your will, you should create a new will instead of crossing things out in your existing will because there is no way to prove it was you who authorized the changes. When you make a new will, destroy the old copies to prevent any confusion.
Some might think that drawing up a will might seem like an inconvenience or more expensive than it should be since they assume one needs to use a lawyer.
Unless you have many assets, maybe own your own business, or have a blended family, going with a self-prepared software or online will-making service is better than not having a will at all. The low cost of doing it yourself should make it more cost-effective to keep your estate planning up-to-date.
If your life is a bit more complicated, then you should go see a lawyer who specializes in wills, estates, and trusts for your peace of mind.
Do you have a will? Where did you go to get one drawn up and what were the costs?