Are you raising one of America’s 73.6 million children? If yes, do you have a will? If you don’t have one, you urgently need one. Don’t wait. A will, with a provision which names the person who should be the guardian of your children if you die, is the most important step in making sure your kids are raised by the people you would want to raise them.
What happens if you don’t have a will?
It’s not fun for any of us to think about what would happen if we died unexpectedly. That probably won’t happen, so you might be tempted to put it off thinking it’s silly to prepare for a worst case scenario. The problem is, if you die without a will which names a guardian for your children and specifies what funds are available to care for them, you have zero control over who raises your kids and how much money remains for their support. Your state’s courts, with government social services, is going to decide what happens to your kids, who raises them and how your money is divided up.
You need a will even if your spouse remains to take care of your children. If you die without a valid will, the courts will decide what happens to your assets according to a preset formula (e.g., some to the surviving spouse, some to the kids). Your spouse may not have full access or control over the money allocated to the children.
Don’t feel sheepish about not putting one together yet. According to a Caring.com survey, nearly half of American parents don’t have a will or living trust. Here’s how not to be one of them.
Make three decisions
Once you’ve decided you are going to make a will, it’s relatively straightforward to get started. You’ll need to make three critical decisions before you write anything up:
Name a guardian. Who is the best person to take care of your children until they are adults in the unlikely event that you are no longer living? Does that person share your values? Do they share your beliefs about parenting? Do they love your children?
FYI, in most cases where parents are divorced or unmarried, the default would be for the children to stay with the surviving biological parent, so if you have an objection to that, you’ll need to put that in writing. Choose your first and second choices for a personal guardian to include in your will. You’ll want to name a legal adult who has the time, energy and willingness to raise your children if needed. Before naming a personal guardian, make sure you’ve asked that person and they have agreed to accept the responsibility if needed.
Decide what happens to your money and stuff. Any assets that do not automatically pass according to their title or beneficiary (called “beneficiary of law,” such as property held as joint tenants with right of survivorship, retirement accounts or life insurance) are included in this category. Make sure you fully designate what happens to your property, bank accounts and investments.
Minor children won’t be able to manage that money for themselves, and you may not want them to have full access to it until they are well established adults. Who will control the checkbook? Decide if that’s an individual – it could be a different person than the guardian if you prefer – or a trust company.
Name an executor. An executor is a person named in your will (or appointed by the court if you die without a will) whose job is to carry out the instructions in your will. The executor takes care of your last financial business such as paying taxes/bills and re-titling property according to your will. Don’t forget to include a digital executor to control your online and social media accounts, who may or may not be the same as your financial executor. As with a guardian, make sure your executor is someone who is willing and capable to take on that kind of big responsibility.
Prepare your will
Once you’ve made the big three decisions, you’re ready to write your will. Here are some options for preparing a valid one:
Use an attorney. The biggest advantage to using an attorney to prepare a will is that — if you pick a qualified estate planning attorney – you can be more confident that it conforms to the laws of your state. The downside is that it’s more expensive. Check your employee benefits. You may have access to a prepaid legal program as a voluntary benefit or access to lower cost resources through your employee assistance program (EAP). The American Bar Association also offers an online state by state guide to wills and estates.
Use an online legal resource. If you need a basic will without a lot of personalization, an online resource may be a fit for your situation. Check with your EAP to see if you have access to any free or low cost will preparation services. There are also online will preparation sites such as Nolo.com and Legalzoom.com where you can make a will for a reasonable price.
Communicate your plans
Finally, a will won’t help if no one knows you have one. Let a few trusted people, such as a sibling, parent or close friend, know that you’ve prepared a will, and where they can find it if it’s needed. Make sure your executor knows how to access your will and has contact information where needed.