You might be overwhelmed by the thought of creating an estate plan, but knowing how to write your own will is an easy first step. A properly executed last will and testament is the foundation of most estate plans. By taking the time to outline your post-death wishes with respect to property division and guardianship of minor children, you can spare your loved 0nes a great deal of avoidable stress and anguish.
Requirements of a Valid Will
To be considered legally valid, a will must contain certain elements. The requirements of a valid will are largely the same across the states and generally include:
- A statement of your name and address
- That you are of sound mind
- A disposition of assets
- Your signature
- The signature of two witnesses who are over 18 years of age and who will not benefit from the will.
- In most places, you will not need a notary to validly execute your will.
Distribution to Beneficiaries
The body of your will should discuss the distribution of your assets. You will name your beneficiaries and either a specific asset, dollar amount, or a percentage of your total remaining estate you would like them to receive. You can generally leave your assets to any person, business, or charitable organization you wish and can disinherit anyone of your liking (or disliking), including your children. However, many states do not allow you to completely disinherit your spouse and you will be required to leave them a certain minimum percentage of your estate.
In addition to your beneficiaries, you will need to name a few other very important individuals. You will nominate an executor and, if you have minor children, you will nominate a guardian or guardians to care for them until they have reached adulthood.
The executor is the person charged with the collection, management, and distribution of your assets to your beneficiaries. This person will serve as the estate’s personal representative and will generally be the person offering your will to the court for probate. They will be responsible for your final income tax return, as well as your estate tax return (if applicable). This person can be a close friend or family member, or your executor can be a trusted advisor such as your accountant or your attorney. Either way, this person should be someone dependable and trustworthy. You will also want to consider compensating your executor for the work they will do on behalf of your estate because it can often be a large job requiring significant time and attention.
The guardian will be the person responsible for the care of your minor children. They are generally given the legal authority to make all personal, financial, and medical decisions on their behalf. If you have a particularly large estate, you may want to designate a Trustee to manage your children’s inheritance and many people choose to name someone other than their children’s guardian to do so. This can serve as a check and balance on the guardian’s power and may help to ensure that all financial decisions governing your child’s inheritance are in their best long-term interest. Just like your nominated executor, your children’s guardian is typically a very close friend or family member who is capable of providing your children with the emotional support and stability they will require in your absence.
Once your will is complete, you will need to execute or sign the document in the presence of two disinterested witnesses. These people should be unrelated to you, should not be beneficiaries of the will, and must be over 18 years of age. Most states only require two witnesses, but it is best to confirm that your state does not require a third before signing your will. After the execution, be sure to store the original signed will in a secure place such as a fireproof safe. We recommend informing your nominated successor of its location so that they know where to find it in the event of your death.
Thinking about death and complicated legal matters can bring out the procrastinator in all of us, but putting a last will and testament in place is not as complicated as most people think. If you have any questions about how to write your own will, contact Dana and Associates, LLC.