It’s not a thing anyone likes to think about—what happens after we die—but when it comes to your assets, you should consider what you’re leaving behind.
Wills are not just for people with big bank accounts, homes in exotic locations and fancy sports cars. “Even a person of modest means should get legal advice about his or her personal circumstances,” says Cristine Cioffi, Esq., president of Cioffi, Slezak and Wildgrube P.C. in Niskayuna, New York, and officer of the Trusts and Estates Section of the New York State Bar Association. “Writing a will is not about money. It’s about setting up a plan for your family to follow.”
Here’s what to consider when preparing a will.
It’s risk to not have a will. If you die without a will, known as intestate, the court decides who gets what and appoints an administrator to distribute your assets. “That may or may not reflect your wishes about whom you want to be in charge or to inherit,” says Cioffi.
Decide who will be guardian to minors and dependents. If you still have children under the age of 18, or a child with special needs who requires ongoing care regardless of age, a will designates whom you wish to become his or her guardian. If you do not choose one, the court will. “It’s heartbreaking if you have family members battling this out in court after you’re gone,” says Cioffi. And the court’s choice may not have been your own.
Choose your executor carefully. An executor ensures your stated wishes are carried out. When considering the best candidate, include people outside of your family, too. If there are addiction or money management issues in the family, for example, a close friend may be a better choice.
Consider all your options. Writing a will is not your only choice; you can also set up a trust. For example, a revocable living trust may be appropriate if you own property in two states. If those assets were to be passed through a will, the will must go through probate—the legal process that validates the authenticity of the document—in both states, whereas properties can be deeded directly to a trust and allocated to the intended parties. Seek your attorney’s advice for the best option.
Get other important documents drafted, too. While you’re at it, have your attorney draw up two additional documents to help you and your family in a crisis, suggests Cioffi. The first is a power of attorney, which allows the person you designate to conduct business or pay bills on your behalf if you cannot do so yourself. The second is a healthcare proxy, which allows the person you designate to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so.
Avoid DIY wills. Doing a will on your own to save money is fraught with pitfalls. For one thing, wills need to be signed in a very specific way with proper witnesses. “I can’t recommend doing it yourself because those wills may end up in a litigation situation, leaving your family to clean up your inadvertent mistakes,” says Cioffi. “And the clean up is what costs money.”
Update your will regularly. If you’ve had major life changes such as divorce, remarriage or the death of a beneficiary, it’s time for a new will. Ditto if you’ve moved to a new state, inherited significant assets or have decided to choose a new executor. It’s also a good idea to pull out your will and take a look at it every five years. “Laws change even if your circumstances haven’t,” says Cioffi. Depending on the circumstances, you may need some tweaks or have your attorney draft a new will.
By Arricca SanSone