Making a Will
BY MAKING A will you decide what happens to your property after your death. A will is a legal document designating the transfer of your property and assets. Although you don't have to make one by law, it is the best way to make sure your estate is passed on to surviving loved ones exactly as you wish. If you die without a will, your assets may be distributed according to the law rather than your wishes. Usually, wills can be written by any person over the age of 18 who is mentally capable.
Although wills are simple to create, about half of all Americans die without one. Without a will, the court steps in and distributes your property according to the laws of your state. If you have no apparent heirs and die without a will, the state may even claim your estate.
Why it's important to make a will
The end of your life is something you probably don't want to dwell on, but thinking about what will happen to your loved ones and your assets is important to make their lives easier, and to give you peace of mind.
A will sets out who will benefit from your estate after your death. There are many good reasons to make a will:
you can decide how your assets are shared.
you can make sure your spouse and kids are provided for.
if you're divorced, you can decide whether or not to leave anything to your former partner.
you may want to leave some assets to your church, ministries, or worthy charities.
Although it is possible to write a will by yourself, it is advisable to use a lawyer as there are certain legal formalities you need to follow to make sure that your will is valid. You may also need legal advice for more complicated matters.
What should be included in your will
Before you write your will or consult a lawyer, it's a good idea to think about what should be included in your will, at minimum the following:
Your name and place of residence.
Details of how much money and what property and possessions you have.
Names of spouse, children and other beneficiaries, such as charities or friends.
Details of who you want to benefit from your will.
Who should look after any children under 18 years of age.
Who will be the executor of your will after your death.
List your bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, stocks and bonds, real estate, and other assets. Also list the names and addresses of anyone to whom you owe money.
States require that you sign the will in front of witnesses - the number of witnesses varies by state. A witness should not be a beneficiary under the will. Only one copy should be signed.
Outstanding debts usually will be paid by your estate before your beneficiaries receive their shares. You may want to clear up debts that you know will be a problem, or make specific provisions for payment of those debts in your will.
A lawyer can also help you develop a complete estate plan and offer alternative plans which may save taxes. This kind of planning can be extremely helpful and economical in the long run for you and your beneficiaries.
Naming a Guardian
In most cases, a surviving parent assumes the role of sole guardian. However, it's important to name a guardian for minor children in your will in case neither you nor your spouse is able and willing to act. Talk to the person ahead of time about what you are asking. If you do not name a guardian to care for your children, a judge will appoint one, and it may not be someone you would have chosen.
Naming An Executor
Most people choose their spouse, an adult child, a relative, a friend, a trust company or an attorney to fulfill this duty. You should choose your executor carefully. It may be a very time consuming job, so make sure you have thoroughly discussed it with him ahead of time.
Responsibilities of an executor include:
Paying valid creditors
Notifying Social Security and other agencies and companies of the death
Canceling credit cards, magazine subscriptions, etc.
Distributing assets according to the will
Where to keep your will safe
Once you've made your will, it is important to keep it in a safe place and tell your executor, close friend or spouse where it is. You can keep it in your safe deposit box, but be aware that some states will seal your safe deposit box upon your death, so this may not always be the safest place to store your will. If a lawyer makes your will, they will normally keep the original and send you a copy. You can ask for the original if you wish to hold it.
Keeping your will up-to-date
You should review your will every five years or after any major change in your life - such as getting separated, married or divorced, having a child or moving. You'll may need to update your will several times during the course of your life. Any change must be by an addition, amendment or supplement, or by making a new will. Your will must not be changed by crossing out words or sentences or making any notes or written corrections on it. Be sure to sign the new will and have it witnessed, then destroy the old one.
A Living Will
A living will is not a part of your will, but a separate document letting your family members know what type of care you do or don't want to receive should you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious. It becomes effective only when and if you cannot express your wishes yourself. If your state recognizes a power of attorney for health care, have one executed to authorize someone to act according to your intentions.
Discuss your wishes as reflected in your living will with family members, and be sure they have a signed copy.
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