The idea of writing a will can conjure images of stuffy offices, pages of dense legalese and costly attorney's fees. It's one of those financial tasks that's easy to put off, especially when you're young and healthy, so it's not too surprising that nearly 60 percent of Americans don't have a will in place.
I get it.
I work at Fabric, a company that's creating financial products for young families, which offers a free will-writing tool. Plus, my dad is a lawyer! And yet it still took me a while after the birth of my baby to actually sit down and write a will.
Once I did, I saw that it wasn't as time-consuming as I'd assumed. In fact, according to a data study I did among Fabric customers about three quarters created their wills in under ten minutes.
A will is your chance to help protect loved ones who depend on you and to consider what should happen to your possessions when you're gone. It's a great conversation to have while you work on building your rock-solid financial foundation.
Having a baby is a wake-up call for many younger folks to make a will, but parents aren't the only people who need one. Fortunately, it's easier than ever to DIY a will to communicate your wishes to loved ones.
New Ways to Make a Will
Because of my job, I get an inside look at how many people make some of the most important financial planning decisions of their lives.
While doing the same research project, I was surprised to see how many people are embracing new platforms to write their wills.
The tens of thousands of wills created on Fabric were obviously all created online, and nearly two-thirds of those were created on a mobile device!
What Is a Will?
Your will, or last will and testament, is a document outlining how to divide your property when you die. You can specify who gets which of your assets and specify conditions (such as requiring someone to enroll in college or undergo substance abuse treatment before they're eligible to inherit).
You can also specify who will be in charge of distributing your assets according to your instructions (that person is your “executor”) and name legal guardians for your children.
If your potential heirs think you've put unreasonable conditions in your will, they can challenge the conditions in court. Generally, courts try to uphold the will-maker's wishes as much as they can, although they'll strike down illegal or harmful conditions. So, if you want to require potential inheritors to spend the night in a haunted mansion to earn your fortune, that final decision may come down to a judge's verdict.
Why You Need a Will
If you're a parent, you may be likely to think of making a will to help protect your young children if you die. That makes sense: More than 70 percent of people making a will online with Fabric have kids under 18.
Let's say you have special requests for how your belongings should be dispersed–like maybe you want your sister to inherit your house but your nephew to inherit your car.This is your chance to make your wishes known.
Wills are especially important for blended and nontraditional families. Foster or step-kids may not be legally recognized as heirs to your estate without a will, and you might want to divide an inheritance differently from your state law's default.
People without kids need wills, too.
A will can allow you to:
- Provide for parents or a spouse. Among willmakers under 45 on Fabric who don't have young kids, about 34 percent chose their parent as beneficiary, and 26 percent chose their significant other or spouse.
- Give money to a sibling. A will is important in this case because your state might designate several other relatives as next-of-kin before turning to your siblings. Intestacy law would also split an estate between siblings, instead of favoring the one who is struggling the most financially (which is something you might choose to do).
- Donate to an organization that's meaningful to you or give money to other relatives or friends.
- Keep money away from certain relatives (this might be important if you're estranged from your biological family and not legally married to a long-term partner).
Even if your situation is straightforward, the whole process of figuring things out after someone passes away usually goes faster if there's a will in place, compared to leaving it to the state to figure it out.
State law can also have unwanted surprises. Many states, for example, split your estate down the middle between a surviving spouse and minor children, including retirement funds. You could inadvertently put your spouse in a financially precarious position after retirement by letting the state determine what to do with your property.
How to Write a Will
Hiring a lawyer to talk through your specific financial and family situation and draft a will for you is one method, especially if you have a lot of assets or a complicated estate. If you're intimidated by the thought of spending hours (and roughly $300 to $1,000) creating your will, the ability to type out a will in under ten minutes for free might motivate you to get a plan in place.
Fabric offers a free tool to create a will in about 7 minutes (the median from our research), which could be a good option if you're looking for something fast, easy and free. And, if you decide you do want professional help, you can always take your completed Fabric will to an attorney for an extra pair of eyes–at least you might be able to save some time by creating your own first draft.
Online tools and templates will cover the basics, but your will should cover all the necessary specifics to wrap up your affairs neatly. Here are some top tips to write a will that satisfies your needs:
- Make sure it's legally binding. That means signatures: yours and two witnesses, who aren't named in the rest of the will. Double-check your state law to confirm requirements, as a couple states also require notarization.
- Consider all your assets and responsibilities.Gather documents for your bank account, retirement funds, investments, real estate, valuables like heirlooms and artwork, and anything else you're leaving to loved ones. Think about those who depend on you, too.If you don't have kids who will need a legal guardian, what about pets?
- Remember debts. If you're still paying off a mortgage, the co-owner or person you're leaving your property to will have to take overpayments. Is the person financially equipped to handle that, or will they most likely have to sell the house to meet the debt?
- Name trustees. When you leave assets to a minor, they actually need to go into a trust until the actual beneficiary is of age. Choose a trustee who you know will act in the minor's best interest.
- Make backup plans. A decision as personal as choosing a child's legal guardian, for example, is one only you and co-parents can make. Naming an alternate guardian can be helpful if something unexpectedly happens to your first choice person. Writing a letter of explanation of your chosen guardian, including that person's relationship with your child and ability to provide a stable home life, can give a judge insight if someone questions or challenges your choice of guardian.
- If you're transgender or nonbinary, double-check pronouns in your will. Reflecting your identity correctly is important for your dignity and also for legal reasons. Inconsistencies in a will can be considered discrepancies, which can complicate the execution of your wishes.
- Remember your digital life, too. Plan what will happen to your social media profiles if you were to pass away, and provide any instructions about closing certain accounts or destroying specific files on your computer.
- When it's done, make your will easy to find! Now's not the time for secrecy. Name it “Will and Testament” or something equally obvious on your computer. Keep a copy in an easy-to-access desk drawer, too, so loved ones can access it without needing your laptop password.
Writing a will isn't anyone's top choice for date night fun or family bonding time, but it's a worthwhile project to take on for the people you love.
Knowing you've got instructions to take care of the people who need you in the event of your death brings welcome peace of mind, making it that much easier to fully enjoy your life with them now.
This post is meant to provide general information and not to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
Fabric isn't a law firm and we aren't licensed to practice law or to provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.