Do You Really Need to Pay Big Bucks to Make a Will?
The short answer is: no! Yet, you should enlist the services of a professional if you have any significant assets to distribute.
By Leah Felderman
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Back in the old days you could hand write a will, have some witnesses attest to your testamentary capacity, sign off, and be done with the legal aspects of passing on. These days, especially with the evolution of a litigious society and the emergence of potentially severe tax ramifications, it is not that simple. Yes, holographic wills are still valid in many states, with a variety of caveats depending on the state. Yet, if there are any significant assets to distribute it is wise to seek assistance from a professional.
Do I have to pay a lot of money to make a will?
No! There are plenty of free services for seniors to assist in drafting a will. Rules for wills vary by state so make certain to seek the services of a professional licensed in the state you are a legal resident of. Free and reduced fee services can be found from a variety of outreach programs including state and local programs, nonprofit groups, and even through a service group you may already be a member of (such as a rotary club, USAA, or even your local bank).
Why should I enlist professional help? It's my money, I should be able to do what I want!
It is your money, but if you don't want somebody else to take a sizeable chunk of it before your beloved grandkids get their college tuition then proper planning must be employed. Without a will, a person's estate gets divvied up in accordance to local laws. This usually heavily favors spouses and blood relatives after paying off creditors and taxes. Forget to officially get divorced decades ago? Has your roommate unknowingly and unintentionally become your common law spouse? What about your beloved adopted children that you never, technically and legally, adopted. Not having even a basic will on file can lead to unintended negative consequences for your loved ones, on top of the pain of being bereaved.
A general rule of thumb is the more assets you have to distribute and/or the more recipients you wish to gift, the more complex your will is and the more it will cost to set up and execute. Don't get bogged down by the details, that's the benefit of engaging a professional. Your final wishes are of great importance so don't be afraid to spend the extra money to ensure your wishes are met and executed efficiently: you can't take it with you anyways!
Top tips to start your estate planning
- Know all your assets and all your outstanding debts. Don’t forget about a safety deposit box at your prior state of residence or the expensive jewelry your dearly departed spouse liked to stash under the floorboards. Create a record(s) of all items prior to drafting your will; your will should be as inclusive as possible although there are always room for amendments if need be.
- Appoint an executor. This is a time to play favorites-choose whom you would like to carry out your wishes. If you engage the paid services of an attorney their office can complete this task. If you had a will drafted but are not under contract with a lawyer or other legal/financial advisor you should choose ahead of time and have this choice documented. Don’t let the state make the choice for you and inadvertently choose your long-lost brother who has a huge gambling habit or a newfound cousin who has secretly been on the lam for decades.
- For assets that allow a designated beneficiary (such as IRAs, pensions accounts, etc.) make certain your selected beneficiaries are accurate and up-to-date.
- For assets that you own jointly, usually full ownership defers to the living partner. If this is not your intent, make certain to rework the terms of your partnerships and joint holdings asap.
- Sentimental and smaller value items can be gifted fairly easily; money, financial assets (such as stocks and bonds) and larger value assets (including art work, jewelry, and property) are more difficult. Come up with a clear plan on how valuable assets are distributed.
- Set up trusts. It’s a great gift and can be a lasting legacy. Sure everybody wants to get cash, some great stocks (to cash out), and property (to sell). One word: taxes. They’ll thank you later for setting up a trust.
About the Author
Leah Felderman is a proud alumnus of University of Central Florida (BA) and San Diego State University (MA). She has worn many occupational hats including teaching, hospitality management, government contractor and non-profit organizer. She is an intrepid international traveler having visited over 60 countries before happily settling down into her new life chapter of domesticity as a mom and Coast Guard wife.