Creating a will. It's easy. It's smart.
Though it may seem hard to believe, more than 50 percent of Americans over 60 years of age do not have a will. They either haven’t thought about it, haven’t gotten around to it, or have put it off because they don’t want to think about dying.
Frequent questions that arise once one begins thinking about a will include: Do I need to hire a lawyer to write my will, or can I draft it myself? Once the will is drafted, can I make changes to it later on? Will the will distribute all of my assets or just certain ones?
Having a will is important because it ensures that your money and property are distributed to the people and charities you want to receive them after your death. If you die without a will, your assets will be distributed in accordance with the laws in your state of residence. The distribution rules vary by state, but assets are typically distributed using a hierarchy of survivors. Assets usually go first to the surviving spouse, then to children, then to siblings, and so on.
You also need to be aware that not all assets are distributed through your will. Certain accounts take precedence over a will. If you jointly own a home or bank account, the house and the funds in the account will go to the surviving owner, even if your will directs otherwise. Similarly, retirement accounts, IRAs, and life insurance policies are distributed to beneficiaries you designate on beneficiary designation forms obtained from the company administering those assets, even if your will directs otherwise.
There are do-it-yourself software programs and will kits that allow individuals to create a simple will without hiring an attorney. This may be good enough for individuals who are single and have a modest financial portfolio. However, individuals with significant assets or complex family situations, such as a blended family or a special needs child, are generally best served by seeking the advice of an experienced attorney who can make sure all issues are being addressed. This will help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you’re gone.
The National Academy of elder Law Attorneys (NAELA.org) and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC.org) websites are good resources. These websites have directories to help you find someone in your area.
The cost of drafting a will varies depending on your location and the complexity of your situation. To minimize your expenses, obtain price quotes from several different attorneys before selecting one and create a detailed list of your assets and accounts prior to your first meeting. If you choose to create your own will, it is wise to have an attorney review it to make sure it addresses all of your needs.
Once your will is written, you can make changes to it by drafting a simple codicil that references the original will and states the changes you wish to make. The good news is that it is not necessary to have the entire will redrafted.
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