Writing a will may seem simple — just say who should get your property when you die — but there are several less obvious elements to it that are just as important. Though you may not be inclined to think about your mortality, taking the time to prepare a well-written will is key to ensuring the transition is as smooth as possible for your loved ones.
Decide if you need help
Before you get started on writing your first will, decide if you need help. For the sake of prudence, it’s recommended to seek the assistance of an attorney who can guide you through the process and ensure you make no accidental errors that could lead to financial disaster down the line. Geoff Williams, finance reporter for U.S. News, writes the cautionary tale of Warren Burger, a Supreme Court justice who one might reasonably assume could write their own will. “It was only 450 words, vague and riddled with errors,” Williams says. “His heirs spent a fortune in legal fees and more than $450,000 in taxes by the time they were finally able to collect their assets.” Even if it’s only your first will, hire an attorney to guarantee doing it right.
Appoint an executor
One of the first things you should do when you finally get started on your will is to appoint an executor. The executor is the individual who will make sure the instructions in your will are carried out — the one who will take on the task of fulfilling your final wishes and managing your estate. This is a big responsibility that can take a lot of time and work, so make sure to discuss it with the person you intend to appoint before appointing them in your will. “Generally speaking, the larger the estate — whether in terms of property, possessions, assets, or the number of beneficiaries — the more difficult and time consuming it will be to disperse,” warns Andrew Beattie, financial writer for Investopedia. Make sure your desired executor can handle the role.
Name your beneficiaries
Your beneficiaries are the people who will inherit your assets after you die. Most commonly, these may include your spouse, children, relatives, and close friends. Use your beneficiaries’ full names in your will to avoid any potential confusion as to their identity. “You probably won't have to think long about the beneficiaries you designate, but it’s key to ensure who you select is up-to-date,” Williams writes.
Designate a guardian
Minor or dependent children are unable to inherit property. “You’ll have to appoint someone to take care of their inheritances for them, not to mention naming someone to care for them when you can no longer do so,” says Julie Ann Garber, an estate planning and taxes expert. It is vitally important you name a guardian who will take care of your children and manage their inheritance in the event you pass away before they turn 18 — if you do not, the court will appoint someone. Discuss this with your children and their potential guardian, and consider appointing an alternate guardian should something happen to your first choice.
Use precise language
Using precise and correct legal language is one of the most important aspects of writing any will. If any part of your will is confusing, obscure, or subject to interpretation, you run the risk of having your final wishes miscarried or not carried out at all. To make matters worse, Garber says without including certain legal terms and phrases, “your will might not be accepted as authentic or valid.” This further highlights the need to hire a reputable estate attorney who understands the ins and outs of writing a will.
Have witnesses sign the will
After you have written your will, it must be signed by witnesses who are over 18 years old. “Ideally, they'll be people who are likely to be around when you aren't,” Williams says. “If something goes wrong, and your will is contested in court, the judge may want to call a witness to testify.” Most states require at least two witnesses and also require that these witnesses are not beneficiaries in your will.
Writing a will is an important step in anyone’s life, and one that must be done carefully and precisely so as to avoid chaos among your heirs. When writing your first will, make sure to hire an attorney who can help guide you through the process.