When famous singer Bob Marley passed away in 1981, he left behind no written will. It took over 30 years of battling it out in court before his wife and family were finally able to divide up his estate appropriately. There was a lot of confusion and litigation along the way, some even resulting in eviction!
This is certainly an extreme example although this drama is preventable.
The fact of the matter is, healthy, secure (and even non-celebrity) people need wills too! And it’s never too early to start putting your wishes into words! Your family members may be a little resistant to the conversation now, but they will certainly appreciate your clear, concise instructions later on.
What Is a Will?
A will is a legal document that states your final wishes and appoints an executor, who will be responsible for making sure that those wishes are carried out.
You do not strictly need a lawyer to write your will, but one is usually recommended. The laws surrounding wills and estate-planning differ by state, so the best way to ensure that your will is valid and says what you need it to say is to enlist the help of an attorney.
What Goes In a Will?
From a technical perspective, the contents of a will usually include the following:
- Your personal information (name, birthdate, address)
- The designation of an executor (person who carries out the provisions)
- Names of your beneficiaries
- Instructions on distributing assets
- If applicable, guardians can be appointed for children or other dependents
If you plan on writing your own will and need to know more specific information, there are resources available to you at the American Bar Association. Additionally, Volunteers of Legal Service run a whole program on senior law specifically and can help seniors with a number of legal forms, including a will, for free.
Here are some examples of assets that you should include in your will—some seem obvious, but others can often be overlooked:
- Money to be used for outstanding debts
This may just be medical bills and the cost of funeral and burial, but it could also include loans, credit card debt, etc.
- Real estate, including your primary house
If you still have a mortgage on your property, consider whether your life insurance will pay off the mortgage or the number of payments available; ask yourself if the person you are leaving it to will be comfortable taking on those payments or other costs related to the property.
- Stocks, bonds, etc.
While your 401(k) and other retirement accounts should have named beneficiaries, which cannot be overridden by a will, other stocks, bonds, and funds may need to be specifically allocated to beneficiaries.
- Business ownership
If you own part or all of a business, regardless of size, be sure to address this; you may also want to check your documents and make sure there isn’t already a plan for your shares upon your death.
This might evoke images of physical money in a piggy bank, but it includes so much more, like checking accounts, money market accounts, and regular savings accounts, so long as none of these already have a “payable on death” designee.
- Other possessions of monetary and/or sentimental value
There are several ways to address this. Some people leave all of their material possessions to one person, some may thoughtfully leave specific items to specific people based on their relationship and interests (for example, they may write that they want all of their fine jewelry to go to their daughter who loves vintage jewelry or their book collection to go to their grandson who loves to read). A third option is to write a separate document spelling out these individual gifts in order to keep the will more concise and straightforward. This is definitely something you would want to talk to a lawyer about.
- Guardianship of family pets
You love your dog and you want them to have the best care after you’re gone. To ensure this, select a person that you know would be a good fit and appoint them as guardian. You may even want to leave that person some money, along with the request that they use it for anything the pet may need.
- Your Digital Footprint (Your Online Presence)
Covering everything from your Netflix account to your blog, to your email address, and even your Facebook page, your digital footprint is an asset that should be considered when writing your will. Take stock of all your accounts and consider what you would like done with them and who you would like to control them. Some questions to consider – Do you want your profiles deleted or turned into memorial pages? What should happen to the photos you’ve posted or writing that you’ve shared? What subscriptions and accounts need to be canceled? You can specify exactly what you want to happen with every item or leave it up to the discretion of a trusted loved one.
Now we know what a will is, the basic structure, and what you might want to put it in. Here comes the personal question –
Should I Talk About My Will?
Whether you choose to talk about your will with your family is entirely up to you. There’s no one right answer. You know your family and friends and you know what your relationships can handle.
Your understanding of your family (or community) dynamic may mean that you have an in-depth discussion on what is addressed in your will, where it is located, and why it is important to you that you have this document in place, but never actually discuss the more contentious details like “who gets what.”
Maybe you do go over it in those fine details, including “who gets what.” You may even directly ask some people what possessions of yours they would like to have to remember you by or whether they could financially take on your house after you’re gone.
Sometimes having everyone on the same page ahead of time can be a very good and healthy thing. Discussing wills with your family in general could be good for everyone; lowering the feelings of anxiety around death and hopefully encouraging others to write up their wills, too.
A word of caution: Going over everything in detail could also cause conflict due to the expectations and personalities of family members.
Again, you know the people in your life best and you get to decide not only “who gets what” but “who gets to know what.”
If you do want to discuss wills in general with your loved ones, but don’t want to invite conflict, it may help to share the above information with them and share your thoughts. You can use this as a sort of discussion guide, highlighting the parts that are most important to you, to get a little more comfortable talking about this topic that we should all be comfortable talking about.
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