Creating a will: It’s not as scary as you might think

My friend Sparky called the other day. We chatted about work, we chatted about the economy, and we chatted about investing. We also chatted about our families. We talked about my mother and her health problems, and then we talked about his parents and their health problems.

“I can't believe they haven't updated their wills,” said Sparky.

What?” I said. “Are you kidding me? How old are they?”

“They're both about 65,” he said. “Maybe a little older. They haven't updated their wills since I was five. If you go by the paperwork, when they die, I have to go live with one of my aunts. I'm almost 40.”

We both laughed. “At least it's my favorite aunt,” said Sparky. “If somebody has to become my guardian, I'm glad it's her!”

Though Sparky and I were making light of the situation, estate planning is serious business, and not just for those near retirement age. I don't mention it often — just in this annual Halloween post on the subject — but I do believe creating a will is a crucial part of personal finance.

Despite this belief, Kris and I have dragged our feet on our own estate planning. For two years we've been telling ourselves we'll get to it — next month. This year, however, we finally followed through.

I called my attorney, Dave, and he guided us through the process. Turns out creating a will wasn't difficult or scary. In fact, the most time-consuming part of the process was organizing the information, but that task was made easier with this handy will-planning document [50k PDF], which I've reprinted with Dave's permission:

This form collects information about your family and beneficiaries, your assets (including bank and investment accounts), and your debts. (Compiling this information is an excellent idea even if you're not creating a will.)

After we submitted our planning forms, Dave asked us to clarify our intentions regarding certain points. (Just what do I want done with my comic book collection when I die, anyhow? And, just for the sake of argument, if Kris and I both die at the exact same time, and so do our designated beneficiaries, then who gets our stuff? We both picked our alma mater, even though we hadn't discussed doing so.) After we'd given him all the information, he created drafts of the wills for us to approve. When we were sure that everything was satisfactory, we met at his office to sign the paperwork.

In a way, preparing our wills was anti-climactic. I've always believed the process was a Big Deal, and involved a lot of red tape. It wasn't like that at all. We simply gathered some information, answered a few questions, and then signed on the dotted line. For some people, there's more to estate planning than a simple will, but Kris and I don't have complicated needs — yet.

Our next task? Gathering our wills and birth certificates and other important documents and placing them together someplace safe. Any suggestions?

This is the annual GRS Halloween post on estate planning. Previous articles include a brief guide to creating a will (2006) and a brief overview of estate-planning software (2007). Photo by mugley.

More about...Planning

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
42 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Katherine
Katherine
11 years ago

At what point do I need a will? I will be starting a PhD in a few weeks, and my husband will be starting his career as an engineer. We are in our early/mid twenties. We do not plan to buy a home for a few years, and do not plan to have children for at least two more years. Our net worth is $10,000-$20,000. Any suggestions?

MoneyGrubbingLawyer
MoneyGrubbingLawyer
11 years ago

Congrats and taking the plunge and getting your will. It sounds like you’ve got a great attorney who made it easy for you to do- checklists like the one you used are a sign of a lawyer who wants to be thorough and not waste your time (or money) with oral questions in his office that can be just as easily addressed through a form like this. Having something you can take and complete also reduces the chance of you missing something. As for where to store your important documents, many law offices will store your original will in their… Read more »

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
11 years ago

If you use a safe deposit box, be sure someone else has access to it if something happens to both of you.

cabesh
cabesh
11 years ago

There’s a great online site that will help you set up guardians for your kids http://kidsprotectionplan.com/ . I think this is extremely valuable, because like most people, I put off making my will but I want to make sure that my children will go where I want them to if anything happens to my husband and I. It’s a good starting point in the process.

Melissa A.
Melissa A.
11 years ago

I’m 29 and think about this a lot. I don’t own property, and I don’t have kids (don’t intend to either). I do have student loan debts and some cc debt, plus investments. And a cat! I guess it’s never too early to get started on this stuff huh?

Spaceknarf
Spaceknarf
11 years ago

To keep my documents safe, I use this document protector: http://www.amazon.com/Honeywell-2017-330-Cubic-Inch-Waterproof-Protector/dp/B000GB1VMO/

It doesn’t cost much, and if you keep it in the basement or on the ground floor you won’t lose your documents in a fire or flood (the lower in your home, the colder it will be during a fire). Also because it’s small it doesn’t add clutter.

Kevin L.
Kevin L.
11 years ago

Is it worth the cost to do it online like legalzoom.com if I don’t have a personal lawyer?

Brian
Brian
11 years ago

how much did the will cost you, if you don’t mind me asking?

Paul Williams from Crackerjack Greenback
Paul Williams from Crackerjack Greenback
11 years ago

@Kevin L. If you have a very simple situation then legalzoom or Quicken’s WillMaker are possible choices if you don’t have the money to pay a lawyer. Obviously it would be better to use a lawyer because he/she can identify possible issues that software may not and he/she has real-world experience with how the wills work out in your state. Definitely shop around if you use a lawyer. You’ll find the prices vary greatly. In the DC area, I know a lawyer who would do a Will, Living Trust, Advance Medical Directive, and Power of Attorney for about $1,200-1,500. I’ve… Read more »

Brooke
Brooke
11 years ago

I’m a lawyer and I’ve drafted countless wills (I am military and we provide wills/other documents for free to military members, family members, and retirees). It is better to have the documents and not need them, than not have them and have your family struggle to figure out the details if the unexpected were to happen. For people with children it’s very important to specify your desires regarding who will be the guardian of the children if the parents die. Even for people without kids, you should consider having these documents made. Without a will, in most states your spouse… Read more »

Lane
Lane
11 years ago

Don’t forget an Advance Directive while you’re at it.

Jaynee
Jaynee
11 years ago

We did our wills when we went abroad on vacation a couple years ago. Fortunately, I work at a law firm, so I had built-in help for that. We plan on keeping them intact until our children reach 18 years old, at which point we’ll make changes. we also have GPOAs and HCPOAs in place.

nmh
nmh
11 years ago

You should also keep a copy of your marriage certificate with the will and birth certificates. Order three certified copies of each (birth and marriage) and notarized copies of the will. Give one to a relative to keep in a keep in a fireproof safe in their home (do the same for them!) one in a safe deposit box, and one with the lawyer. You should already have copies of your birth and marriage certificates at home, get a fireproof safe, you can probably get away with just a regular copy of the will.

Andrea
Andrea
11 years ago

We had not updated our will since we got married(23 years- yikes). Since then we had two kids, a house, money- but no new will, no advance directive, no POA. Because of deaths in the family and the aging of my mom, we went with her to an eldercare attorney and to get her will redone(her executors were dead and other things were incorrect), an advance directive, and a POA. At the time, my mom was elderly but well- a year later- she was in the hospital for 7 months and after, was no longer able to handle her own… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
11 years ago

This is one of the things that I keep meaning to get round to doing. It’s complicated by the fact that although my net worth is low, I’m worth quite a bit more dead as work provides life insurance. This doesn’t exactly fall into the provisions of the will so I’m not sure how to proceed. Procrastination isn’t exactly getting me far though.

Neil
Neil
11 years ago

As EscapeVelocity has mentioned if you are putting your will in a Saftey Deposit Book ensure someone you trust (your executor perhaps) has access to your SDB. I work in retail banking and I have witnessed countless times when children of the deceased have come in looking for access to a parents SDB because they need to find the will. This can be further complicated if there is a fued within the family. Remember you’re creating a will to so that your legacy can be distributed as you wish. You are also creating a will to make things easier for… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
11 years ago

We went to an attorney and got an uncomplicated will last year, including specifying who would take care of the kids, for $350, after spending $100 on a few copies of will-writing software over 6 years of parenthood and just not doing it.

We found the $350 well worth it, just to get it done.

Jessica
Jessica
11 years ago

My work is always making me update my will and make up a power of attorney and family care plan and whatnot. Geez. You’d think I had a dangerous job or something. I’m just in the Army.
Happy Halloween everybody!

aulelia
aulelia
11 years ago

I’m new to the world of personal finance blogging but I stumbled upon your blog and I really like it.

I am still in my 20s but I am also thinking about wills. I do have a personal pension — can I include that in a will?

Live for Improvement
Live for Improvement
11 years ago

Great article, perfect for Halloween.

For important document storage, I suggest a fire proof safe for the home. It is easily accesible and pretty secure.

KelBell
KelBell
11 years ago

We have a fireproof safe in the basement.
I got it from Target and it cost about $35.

I intend to make copies of the will (it needs updating!), and BCs and such to give to my parents. I have their documents as well.

We really need to update our will, but the cost seems so high! I think we’ll update it cheaply and save up for a good lawyer to help right a through will.

What other documents do people recommend? I’m a bit clueless in that area.

anon
anon
11 years ago

Suze Orman’s Women and Money book tells us to make a Living Trust. Just read the chapter on that. Wills are not sufficient. Just something to check out when you stop by the bookstore next time.

Martacus
Martacus
11 years ago

Trying to lighten things up a bit on the subject, I suggest watching “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” to get an idea of the sort of chaos than can result from nonexistent or unsecured wills. 🙂

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

As a general matter, at least in Oregon, more and more attorneys are reluctant to store an original will for a client. This is primarily because there’s liability associated with holding the will, ensuring that it’s safe, etc. and there’s a specific procedure to go through to get rid of it (which can be cumbersome). As a result, many lawyers now will not hold the original will. I know because that’s my policy. Having the lawyer hold the will came about (I suspect) because many people didn’t have a secure place to put it. That’s changed in the last 50… Read more »

Amber Weinberg
Amber Weinberg
11 years ago

I always wondered, can you write a will yourself and store it somewhere safe where someone knows where it is? Will that hold up in court?

Charlotte
Charlotte
11 years ago

Dave Ramsey recommends uslegalforms.com

Has anyone used it? Was it good enough?

-Charlotte

Charlotte
Charlotte
11 years ago

Dave Ramsey recommends uslegalforms.com

Has anyone had any experience using it? What do you think?

-Charlotte

Cynthia
Cynthia
11 years ago

My husband and I recently went to a lawyer for our estate planning needs. The final bill came out to be $1700 but our situation is somewhat complicated by DH having a son from a previous marriage and the birth of our pending baby. An interesting fact we learned from our lawyer is that if my DH had died without us having this all in place, his 12 y/o son would inherit two-thirds of our house and I would only inherit one-third; meaning I would have needed his ex-wife’s approval (on behalf of the son since he is underage) before… Read more »

Adam Snider
Adam Snider
11 years ago

There are also options for creating a will online, instead of hiring a lawyer to do it for you. You’ll save a lot of money, compared to hiring a lawyer if you use on of these documents.

Here is one that I’d recommend (disclosure: I work for the company that provides this service): http://www.lawdepot.com/contracts/last-will-and-testament/

We also provide information about the importance of having a will, and when you need to look at updating your will (there are a variety of life events that can make updating your will necessary). You can check some of that information out here: http://wiki.lawdepot.com/wiki/The_Importance_of_a_Last_Will_and_Testament

Brooke
Brooke
11 years ago

If you do your own wills/other documents using legal software, do some research to make sure you have it witnessed and notarized in the way YOUR state requires to make sure it is legally valid. I know some states require two witnesses and notarized signature, I know at least one state requires three witnesses, I think it’s Vermont if I remember correctly. In Nevada, where I am licensed, two people must witness you signing the will and they must also sign the will. Also you do not want witnesses who are in any way related to you or who might… Read more »

Brooke
Brooke
11 years ago

Sorry that was so long.

Another thing that is important to mention is that some states are community property states, and the way property is divided if the person does not have a will can get even more complicated. If I’m not mistaken these are the community property states: Nevada, California, Texas, Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Louisiana.

Another thing, Louisiana has really funky wills. If you live there I don’t recommend doing your own will. Go to an attorney to have them do it to make sure it is legally valid.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Just FYI, a “springing” power of attorney sounds like a wonderful idea, but if you’re in Oregon, Oregon doesn’t recognize such a creature. We keep bringing it to the legislature where it is promptly tabled for whatever reason.

Shelly
Shelly
11 years ago

We haven’t made a will because we can’t find a suitable family to raise our children. I know that sounds snobby, but we have some radical ideas about child rearing (attachment parenting, unschooling, allowing our children to make their own medical decisions, etc.) and don’t have friends or family who share all of our philosophies.

Financially, if my husband and I would both die, wouldn’t our money automatically be split between our children? Or if just one of us died, wouldn’t the assets go to our spouse automatically?

plonkee
plonkee
11 years ago

@Shelley:
As things stand, what will happen to your children if you die? My guess is that they will end up with one of your parents, or siblings. And there may be a custody battle.

Not having a will doesn’t mean that you won’t die, or that the right people will magically pop up. If you can only make the least bad choice at the moment, that’s still better than not making a choice at all.

Bill in NC
Bill in NC
11 years ago

You want to have power of attorney for health care (whatever it’s called in your state), not a living will.

Living wills usually only address a few very specific end-of-life medical treatments and generally place the decision authority with a physician (often the attending, whom you’ve probably never met before)

With a health care POA _you_ choose who makes medical decisions for you, so they can specify what you _would_ want as well as what you _don’t_ want in terms of medical treatment.

Kathy
Kathy
11 years ago

Why not give the will to the executor and copy to backup executor? I had a friend once who had made me her executor but I only found out about it through a casual conversation with her. Make sure the executor is someone who wants to be executor. Also many assets may go to beneficiaries designated on forms filled out long ago, these take precedence over what is in the will. Some property may automatically go to another person, depending on how titled (e.g.home) how banks accounts are co-owned etc. Also, Louisiana has laws automatically giving part of property to… Read more »

Alexis Martin Neely
Alexis Martin Neely
11 years ago

@katherine At the very least, you should have two legal documents in place, even with not very much money and no kids. Here’s a post I wrote on the 2 legal documents every adult needs: http://tinyurl.com/6hl63e @moneygrubbinglawyer NO, never store a Will in your safe deposit box. It makes it very difficult for your family to access your safe deposit box after you die, if your Will is locked inside. We need your Will to access the box. @Kevin L. Legalzoom can be a good start. Here’s my thoughts about whether the documents work: http://tinyurl.com/6k6wfk @Shelley the more specifics you… Read more »

Alexis Martin Neely
Alexis Martin Neely
11 years ago

Oh, and JD, sorry – I didn’t see your last question there regarding where should you store documents. Ideally, your lawyer should keep your Will in his fireproof safe. He’ll need the original when you die. If your lawyer doesn’t keep documents, I’d recommend a safe in your house and make sure your lawyer or close family or friends have the combination or a copy of the key.

Congratulations on getting your estate planning taken care of. But, why no Trust?

MoneyGrubbingLawyer
MoneyGrubbingLawyer
11 years ago

@Alexis, you make a good point. As was mentioned above, if you choose a safe deposit box it’s important to make sure that your executor has access. Whatever you choose, make sure that’s it’s secure against all threats- regardless of how many copies you may have, without the original will you may be out of luck.

Keysha
Keysha
11 years ago

How do I discuss what a will is to my child? Or explain why life insurance is so important withiout scaring him?

Dave Claussen
Dave Claussen
11 years ago

This was a great reminder to me that I need to get this done. I have one question though; the link you reference “this handy will-planning document [50k PDF]” gives me a 404 error. I realize that this is a year after your post, but this document seems like it would be VERY helpful. Can you repost? Email to me? Thanks for your time and this post.

– Dave

Virginia
Virginia
10 years ago

I recently purchased my will from LegalZoom.com. I am divorced & have divided my estate at 25% to each of my 4 adult children. My will is plain & simple, with no entanglements. Do the will’s produced by LegalZoom hold up is court in the state of Wisconsin? I don’t want my children to run into any complications after I’m gone. Please advise. I enjoyed all of the comments on your website, they’ve been very informative.
Thank you for your time.

shares