A will is an important document most people don’t want to think about, but it’s crucial to have in place to protect your assets and ensure your loved ones receive what you want them to.
It can be wise to have a lawyer write up the documents in your will to keep everything legally sound and eliminate any confusion. Before approaching a lawyer and putting pen to paper, think through the items below. Keep in mind your will won’t come together in a day because it can take time to make these critical decisions.
Unless you explicitly specify who it should go to, your money will most likely go to the state. To prevent this, account for every penny. Make sure to cover all your accounts and investments. Speak with your financial advisor and have them compile a thorough list of your financial assets so you don’t forget anything. Here are examples of what to cover in your will:
- Checking accounts
- Certificates of deposit
- Cash value life insurance
- Medical savings accounts
- Retirement accounts, including employer plans
- Savings accounts
- Taxable investment accounts
Real estate can be tricky to outline in a will. Property isn’t as cut-and-dry as a trail of financial assets. Some people have multiple property investments or multiple beneficiaries, which can complicate the equation. The more specific you are in the will, the less likely it will be there are complications in your absence. Here are questions to ask your lawyer about including real estate in your will. Be aware that state laws can vary on this topic.
- If my property isn’t going to a spouse, who can it legally go to?
- How should the proceeds of my home sale be distributed between multiple heirs?
- What if one of my heirs wants to retain the property as a residence?
- Can I assign different percentages of the property to multiple beneficiaries?
- How will my outstanding debts affect this process?
Managing outstanding debts after a death of can cause a lot of anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be that way. First, debts are not always the legal obligation of your heirs. Oftentimes the proceeds from an estate sale will go toward paying off your debts first. Here is a helpful breakdown of what kind of debt will still need to be paid off and what will go away upon your death. Work with your financial advisor to pay off outstanding debt so that your estate sale proceeds can go directly to your beneficiaries.
- Auto loans: Your vehicle will be sold if there are outstanding loan payments. Otherwise, the lender reserves the right to seize the vehicle until the loan is paid off by next of kin or an outlined beneficiary.
- Credit cards: Debt will be paid out of an estate sale prior to the distribution of assets.
- Student loans: Federal loans are discharged upon death, but private loans will need to be paid out by the estate.
- Mortgages: If your property is worth less than the amount left on your loan, your heirs will work out a short sale agreement with the lender, otherwise the property goes into foreclosure. However, if an heir chooses to reside in the home, they may be allowed to take over your remaining mortgage payments.
Most people think about large items, such as financial assets and property, but don’t forget about your personal possessions. Take inventory of your jewelry, furniture, and other items that you want to be left to a loved one. It’s important to do so because your assets could be taken and auctioned to repay your debt unless you specify who you want them to be left to. Have any high-value items appraised if you want the proceeds from the sale of your possessions to go to someone specific.
Executor or witness
An executor of a will is the person you choose to administer your estate. They do not need to be a beneficiary, just someone who can take care of your estate after you die. This is not the same as a power of attorney, which is someone who can take care of your estate while you are alive if you become unable to care for yourself. It’s often advised that you name someone with no personal interest in the matter, such as an estate planning attorney.
If you choose to write your own will, which is not often advised, you will need someone present to witness you signing and agreeing that the document is correct. Be sure to research the law in your state because some states do not allow heirs to be witnesses.
Alongside your will, you should keep these important pieces of paper handy and accessible for your executor so that they can more easily access your accounts and assets.
- A list of utility companies, phone companies, and other service providers you use with the corresponding account number
- An updated list of financial institutions, lenders, bank account numbers, and insurance contracts
- Copies of recent financial statements
- Legal agreements, such as leases, divorce decrees, and private loan agreements
- Social Security and pension award letters
- Tax returns for the last five to ten years
No one wants to think about drafting a will, but it’s important to be proactive so you can rest assured that everything will be handled properly in your absence.