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Writing Your Will: Common Questions and Simple Tips

Have you thought about your final wishes in life?

We know it’s not a particularly fun topic to discuss. But the truth is, writing a will is an important step to help your loved ones in the event of your passing. (So is choosing the right life insurance.)

If you’re one of the 60% of Americans without a will or if you just haven’t updated yours in a while, now is a good time to take action.

To help get you started, we’re answering some commonly asked questions about wills. (This is not intended to provide legal advice – always consult a lawyer for guidance specific to your situation.)

Why Should I Write a Will?

Writing a will allows you to declare your last wishes with certainty. By clearly stating who should receive your assets after you pass away, your loved ones could avoid the added strain of a complex legal process during an already difficult time.

Preparing your will may seem unpleasant because nobody wants to think about their own mortality. However, having a will can give you peace of mind knowing everything you leave behind will end up in the right hands.

For example, if you don’t have a will, in most cases the state where you live will control the distribution of your assets and determine your beneficiaries. Heirs (spouses and blood relatives) are often favored by state law in those instances, which means your closest friends and favorite charities would be left out.

When Should I Write My Will?

Most states require you to be at least 18 years old to write a will. But outside the legal age limitation, the best time to write your will is right now.

Experts recommend that every adult should have a will regardless of their age or assets. Even if you don’t have children, a house or a large savings account, a will helps your family and friends manage your estate without a state-appointed administrator.

Can I Write My Own Will?

There’s nothing to stop you from writing your own will, but to ensure your final wishes are legally enforceable it’s best to seek counsel from an experienced attorney. By foregoing legal advice, you may inadvertently include vague language or make other mistakes that could be costly to your heirs.

For example, the late Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger chose to write his own will, which turned out to be a costly mistake. Despite his legal expertise, his document was filled with errors that ultimately left his heirs with taxes totaling over $450,000.

How Much Will I Need to Pay for Legal Help to Write My Will?

When it comes to estate planning, many attorneys charge a flat fee for their services. The price of a basic will can range from $300 to upwards of $1,200. For more complicated estates with significant assets, you can expect to pay more.

How Should I Structure My Will?

Once you begin writing your will, there are some essential elements you’ll need to include. Keep in mind that this is general advice only and is not a substitute for legal advice.

  • Start with an introduction. Your will should begin by clearly stating this is your “last will and testament.” You should also provide information clarifying your identity including your name, address, social security number and date of birth.
  • Name an executor. Next, name the person who will be responsible for carrying out the legal responsibilities of your estate. His or her duties include offering your will for probate, taking inventory of your assets, paying bills and taxes using your estate funds, notifying the appropriate agencies of your death, distributing assets to beneficiaries, filing final income taxes and paying off any debts. The executor doesn’t have to be a professional but it should be someone who can properly manage the responsibility. (Find out more about how to choose an executor.)
  • State your beneficiaries. Your heirs will likely be the first people you choose to receive your assets. But you’re not limited to blood relatives. You can also name friends, stepchildren or charitable organizations. And remember that spouses have a legal right in most states to inherit some portion of your assets even if they’re not included in your will.
  • Name who will receive each possession. Make sure you are specific about what each person should receive. Be realistic, too. For instance, there’s no practical way to divide a car between two or three parties.
  • Declare guardianship for your kids. If your children are at an age that requires legal guardianship, your will should name someone to care for them until they reach adulthood. It’s always wise to discuss guardianship with the person you select before naming them in your will. And if you don’t assign guardianship, expect a court to assign it for you.
  • Sign your will with witnesses. In addition to your own signature,every state requires you to have at least two witnesses sign your document. Each witness should not be named as a beneficiary and must be at least 18 years old.
  • Attach a letter. If you have additional wishes or a final statement, you may want to include a personal letter for clarification. This letter can also serve as a final goodbye to your loved ones.

Where Should I Keep My Will?

After your will has been finalized, be sure to store it in a secure place like a safe or locking file cabinet. And don’t forget to tell your family where it’s located.

When Should I Update My Will?

Just because your will is written doesn’t mean it should stay locked away forever. Here are some occasions when you may want to consider making revisions:

  • You experience a significant life change. This can include getting married, giving birth to a child, getting divorced or experiencing the death of a family member. In these instances, you may need to add or remove beneficiaries. Significant life events could also trigger a change in how you choose to divide your assets.
  • Someone in your will experiences a life change. A person you list may get married, move away or become ill or disabled. Such a change could affect who you list as a beneficiary, guardian or executor.
  • Tax laws are revised. Provisions in your will may be set up to lower the effect of estate taxes on your heirs. If certain tax laws change in your state, it may be worth adjusting your document accordingly.
  • A few years have passed since your initial draft. If it’s been three to five years since you first wrote your will, now is a good time to take another look to check its accuracy. Are your assets still divided as you wish? Are you still in close contact with all of your beneficiaries? You may want to alter the language in your document if you answered “no” to either question.

How Can I Make Changes to My Will?

If you need to make a change to your will, there are two common options. You can choose to draft a new will, or write a codicil which serves as an amendment to your existing document.

Requirements for codicils vary by state but generally they must be completed in the same manner as your will. That means writing down what you wish to change in your will, signing the document and getting signatures from two witnesses.

A codicil is read and interpreted alongside your will after you pass away. So, if you need to make multiple changes to your will, to help your beneficiaries avoid confusion it may make more sense to draft a new document instead.

Living in the Moment

We understand the importance of preparing for the road ahead. That’s why life insurance from ERIE is designed to help you live in the moment, with peace of mind knowing the ones you love are protected.

by Walter Doerschuk

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