Understanding How to Make a Will
August is National Make-A-Will Month. Wills and estate planning are so important to the Huntington’s disease community, and Americans in general. To make sure your wishes are honored, and your family is protected, this is your reminder that it is time to write your will.
A will is a written document that provides instructions for your wishes and care in life (living will), and how you want your property distributed when you die (traditional will). If you do not prepare a will or have your wishes in writing, then everything will be left to the laws of your state. This includes the distribution of your property, and who will make decisions about your health and well-being if you cannot. So, how do you make a will?
1. Decide what to include in your will.
You will need to compile a list of your assets. This includes your belongings (cars, jewelry, furniture, pets), bank accounts, investments, property, and insurance policies. You cannot protect things in your will if you do not know what you own. And anything you want to specifically pass down to a loved one has to be included in your will.
2. Choose who gets your possessions and assets.
Write down the names of all the people in your life who you want to get your assets and belongings. Is this your spouse, children, extended family, or close friends? You get to decide who gets what, how much they get, and if you want to leave anything to charity. You can leave everything to one person or divide it between 10 people, the choice is yours alone.
It is important to know that a will does not override legal documents already in place, like the deed to a house or title to a car. Also, a will does not override designated beneficiaries on insurance policies. Make sure to update your insurance beneficiaries when you draft your will.
3. Select your executor.
The executor is the person responsible for carrying out your wishes, distributing assets, and paying off your debts. Your executor should be a responsible person you trust, whether that is an adult child, a family friend, or an attorney. If you choose an attorney, they are usually paid from the funds in your estate.
4. Name a guardian for your children.
If you have minor children, you need to name a guardian who will take custody and care for them. The guardian should be someone you trust and who is willing to take on the responsibility of raising your children. Also consider setting up a trust to make sure the guardian can use your assets and benefits for the care of your children.
5. Sign your will in front of witnesses.
It is important to note that a written will is not valid in most states unless it is signed by the creator and two witnesses. The witnesses must be different people than those who are inheriting things in your will. They should also be people you know well so they can speak on your behalf if the will is challenged.
6. Store your will safely.
Your will becomes meaningless if no one can find it when you die. Make sure to store the document in a safe place that your beneficiaries know about and can access. It is also a good idea to keep a digital copy of your will in addition to the original, signed copy.
7. Update your will as needed.
Life continues to change even after you finish your will, so it is important to read over your will every few years and make sure it is still accurate and appropriate.
Writing your Will
There are multiple ways to make a will: write it yourself, use a template, or hire an attorney. Writing a will yourself is not recommended because the document still has to abide by all of the laws in your state. For example, in Virginia, a handwritten will is legal, but it must be entirely in your handwriting, and you will need two witnesses who can swear it is your handwriting. It is much safer to use a template or work with an attorney. If you have a modest estate, then it should be fine to use a simple will template from your state – you will still need to make sure the final will is legally valid in your state. There are certain situations where you will want to hire an attorney to write your will:
- You have a large estate
- You are thinking about putting your estate in a trust
- You want to exclude someone from your will
- You have a special needs family member who will need financial support and medical care for their lifetime
If you have questions, you can always Ask Allison!