According to a recent study, an astonishing 51% of Americans age 55 to 64 do not have wills. And ladies, for those of you ages 45 to 54, that number is a staggering 67%!1
Moreover, with Facebook statuses, Twitter handles and Instagram photos now part of our ever lasting legacy, it’s worth reevaluating what a will even means and whether or not you think you (and your Facebook account) should have one.
But if you are like most people, even the thought of estate planning can be intimidating. So pour yourself a cup of coffee, get comfortable, and keep reading for the next 5 minutes, as we take you through some common questions and answers to get you started planning.
Do I Need A Will?
It’s normal to think that you don’t have financial assets worthy of a will. But wills are about more than just financial assets – you should at least have a healthcare directive allowing you to express your treatment preferences in extreme medical situations when you cannot communicate. Plus, don’t we all have cherished mementos that were perhaps passed down to us? A will allows you to avoid future family feuds by deciding how those family heirlooms get distributed.
Plain and simple, having a will puts your assets in black and white so that there is no room for the court to interpret them and make incredibly important decisions on your behalf.
Who Would Be In Charge of My Will?
A will needs to name a person who will be in charge of your money and decisions after you’re gone (aka the executor). In the absence of a will, the court will appoint the executor for you, who may or may not be a trusted family member. This person will make key decisions on your behalf, such as the care of your minor children and the management of assets. So before deciding who this will be, you should first understand what they do.
Just to name a few, an executor is responsible for:
- Setting up a bank account for the estate for incoming funds and to pay ongoing bills (paychecks, mortgage, utilities, funeral arrangements, taxes, etc)
- Notification of death to banks, credit agencies, lenders and government agencies
- Deciding whether probate is necessary
- Protection and upkeep of personal property until its distribution
- Distribution of assets according to the will, then disposing of any personal effects remaining after distribution to heirs
The duties of an executor are far and wide, so choose wisely. And ensure that your assets are in order and well documented, so it’s more manageable for your loved ones to carry out your wishes in their time of grieving.
Got it! So Where (And When) Do I Start?
Start by writing down how you would like things to look after your death, starting with:
- Who Can Care For Your Children
In 2-parent households, the custody of children automatically defaults to the surviving parent. But think through different “Who” and “Why” situations that you may want to outline depending upon the circumstance. For instance, if it is your wish that a step-parent is granted primary custody, you would need to clearly outline the supporting circumstances in your will. Tip: Don’t forget about your pets!
- Who Inherits Your Assets
This includes your home, cars, money and personal belongings. Make a spreadsheet detailing everything and think through your reasoning carefully. Does it make sense for the same person to assume guardianship of your minor children and inherit your home? It certainly might so your children aren’t uprooted, but consider that the guardian could unknowingly sell your home because you didn’t outline that specific request in the will. Tip: Now is also a good time to ensure all your beneficiaries are up to date so you can mark them in your spreadsheet for reference.
- How Will Your Financial Obligations Be Met
Your executor, out of an estate account that’s established for you will help ensure your debts are covered. So add within your spreadsheet a list of outstanding debts including your mortgage, student loans, auto loans, credit cards, etc. That will help paint your overall financial picture so that outstanding debts can be covered, if and when they become the obligation of your estate. Tip: Life insurance policies become quite useful in covering these types of expenses, as well as funeral expenses and probate costs.
As for the best time to start, well, it’s now. Whether you’re just starting out or approaching retirement, it’s never too early to prepare for the unexpected. You and your family will sleep better knowing that this important consideration is handled, and that’s a benefit we can use at any age.
What Happens to My Digital Afterlife?
Long after we’re gone, our digital legacy lives on. While it will serve as a loving memory for family, be sure anything you may want to be changed or removed is also addressed in your will. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have established protocols to address the needs of memorializing or deleting user accounts after you pass on, but you should have your own wishes in writing as well.
Can My Employer Help?
Many employers offer estate planning as part of their company’s benefits package. If offered, employees can obtain legal advice and representation for common legal matters such as traffic defense, family law, defense of civil suits and you guessed it- wills and estate planning documents. Check with your HR department to see if this is available to you. It’s typically paid for monthly through payroll deduction and can be added during open enrollment for benefits.
This Is A LOT and I’m Outta Coffee - Tell Me Something Good
Sure thing! The good news is that depending on the complexity of your assets and liabilities, you may be able to do it yourself - DIY wills are becoming increasingly popular and typically cost less than $100 through trusted sites like Legal Zoom, Nolo, or Rocket Lawyer. And you can store digital assets in designated safes and can create messages that can be delivered to your loved ones after you die! Extending your love and thoughtfulness to those you care for is a comforting way to show your support even after you are gone. Programs like SafeBeyond let you write several messages to different loved ones that can be delivered throughout their lives. This is a unique way to extend your emotional legacy to your loved ones for years to come.
Whether you used a DIY service or a legal professional to draw up your wills, you’ll want to reach out to them for any amendments. It’s best to update your wills every two years- or in the event of any significant life changes (such as marriage, divorce, out-of-state move, or having children).
The Bottom Line
While it’s more common than not to delay end-of-life planning, there are many good reasons to set aside your discomfort for the greater good. Putting a will in place will give you comfort knowing those you care about will be able to focus on carrying out your legacy.
1. http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2014/04/09/americans-ostrich-approach-to-estate-planning/#415d1d78f07bopens in a new window
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