10 Facts You Must Know Before Writing a Will
Why do I need a will?
For many people, writing a will seems like a complex, daunting process. And while there's no shortage of information available on the topic, not all of it is accurate. Despite what you may have heard, a will is an important estate planning tool, and all adults should have one.
Below, we clear up 10 common myths about writing a will and provide tips to help you finish your own estate plan.
Myth 1: "I don't own a lot, so I don't need a will."
Wills aren't just for the rich and famous. There are many important reasons to have a will, and passing on your money and property is only one of them. With a will, you can also choose guardians for your minor children, name caretakers for your beloved pets, write your funeral wishes, designate who manages your online/digital assets and more.
Myth 2: "My family knows my wishes, so I don't need a will."
Even if your family knows what you want — and they might know less than you think — they don't get to make decisions for you if you die without a will. Instead, a court will make those decisions based on your state's intestacy laws. Court proceedings can be long, drawn-out and expensive, costing loved ones a lot of money from your estate. Also, you might want your assets distributed differently than how the court would distribute them. A will is your last, best opportunity to direct your estate assets to who you want in the amounts you decide. Consider the last time you tried to pick a restaurant to go to dinner with your family—did everyone quickly agree? A will avoids ambiguity, guesswork and possible family friction during a difficult time.
Myth 3: "My family will look after my kids if something happens to me."
Choosing a guardian for your minor children is one of the most important things you can do in your will. Some people assume that if they die, their families will look after their children. But again, if you don't have a will, your family doesn't get to make this decision. Your family members can step up and offer to take custody of your children, but ultimately, the court will decide who's most fit to be their guardian. And who volunteers (and is chosen) could be different from the person you would have picked had you chosen the guardian yourself.
Myth 4: "I need a lawyer to write a will."
If you have a complex family or financial situation, you will probably benefit from hiring an attorney to help you draft your will. But if you're like most Americans, you could also write your own will. As long as you follow the proper guidelines, a do-it-yourself will is just as valid as one prepared by a lawyer.
Myth 5: "Writing a will is expensive and time-consuming."
This often goes hand-in-hand with the point above. When it comes to writing a will, many people picture long, expensive meetings in an attorney's office and decide to avoid it. But with today's technology, it's easier than ever to access high-quality will templates and forms that help you quickly and accurately write your will. There are several low-cost or free options on the market, including FreeWill, that can help you create your will in less time than an episode of your favorite streaming show.
Myth 6: "A will must be notarized and filed in court for it to be legal."
Busted in 49 states, half-busted in Louisiana!
The rules that govern how to make a valid and legal will vary from state to state. Currently, Louisiana is the only state that requires you to notarize your will. All other states only need the will writer's signature and the signatures of at least two witnesses. Having your document notarized can be helpful even if not required, and it is not difficult. Notaries are professionals who verify the identities of people signing legal documents of all types, and they are easy to find and generally charge a small fee for their services.
You also don't have to file your will at the courthouse for it to be valid — it's just an optional step that safeguards your will and starts the probate or succession process more quickly. If you don't wish to file your will with the court, you can keep it in a safe place — like a safe deposit box or fireproof safe — and let your loved ones know where it can be found. When you pass away, someone (usually your personal representative or executor) locates your will and files it with the court to begin the probate process.
Myth 7: "It doesn't matter if I have a will because no one will follow it."
Some people believe that, even if they have a will, their families or the court will disregard it and do whatever they please. But if you have a valid will, your lawful wishes must be followed to the greatest extent possible. That's the law.
There are some circumstances when your wishes might not be followed, but these can usually be avoided with proper planning. For example, your will might not be followed if:
- It's rejected because it isn't valid. For example, perhaps you didn't sign or witness it properly.
- It can't be found, or no one knew it existed, so it wasn't submitted to the court.
- It conflicts with and is overruled by certain state laws. For example, in some states, your spouse is entitled to a certain share of your property, even if you try to give them less in your will.
Myth 8: "I'm too young to need a will."
It's never too early to have a will! If you're older than 18, it's a good idea to have one, especially if you own property, pets or have children. None of us can predict the future, and we don't know how long our lives will be. Having a will can give you the peace of mind that, no matter what happens, you've put your affairs in order and protected your loved ones.
Myth 9: "I already have a will, so I don't have to think about it anymore."
Having a will is a great first step, but it's only useful to you and your loved ones if you keep it up-to-date. Your circumstances, relationships and wealth will likely change many times over the course of your life. Estate attorneys recommend updating your will every three to five years or whenever you have a major life event (like getting married or divorced, moving to a different state or having children).
For example, say you once planned to create a trust for a young relative, but they've since grown up and don't need financial support anymore. Perhaps you wanted to leave your prized 1969 Corvette convertible to your brother, but he doesn't want it. Or maybe there's a cause that's close to your heart, and you want to add a charity (like Ochsner) as a beneficiary in your will. By updating your will, you make sure it always reflects your most current wishes.
Myth 10: "My debts go away when I die."
Wouldn't that be nice? Unfortunately, your debts don't disappear when you pass away. Instead, they'll be paid with the funds from your estate. If your estate doesn't have enough cash to cover your debts, it's possible some of your assets may be sold for cash to pay back creditors.
If you have a will, you can choose which assets you want to be used to pay your debts and in which order. If you don't have a will, it's up to your executor and the court to decide which of your assets to sell to cover your debts.
Making a will creates peace of mind. Confronting our mortality can be uncomfortable. However, it is a fact of life that cannot be avoided.
Creating a will is one of the kindest things you can do for your family. By putting your affairs in order, you can prevent stress and provide for the people and causes you love. Dying without a will can cause all sorts of problems. Consider the news stories involving the estates of Aretha Franklin, James Gandolfini and Prince. All three died without valid wills, and their families are still dealing with the many issues that could have been easily avoided.
Technology has made creating a will easier than ever before. Ochsner has partnered with FreeWill, an online tool that provides legal forms and legal information that our supporters can use to create a valid will or living trust. FreeWill uses a clear step-by-step procedure that takes around 20 minutes to complete. You answer questions about who you are, your heirs, your pets, your assets and how you want them distributed. You can even leave a bequest to a charity like Ochsner Health if you choose. It is free to use at your own pace, with no obligation.
One last thing: If you have a more complicated situation, like a large estate, difficult family dynamics or need to provide for a special needs child, it could be a good idea to work with an estate attorney. They can help you create an estate plan that's the best fit for you and the people and causes you love.
Ready to get started? Create your free will or trust with FreeWill today.
This blog was written with guidance by FreeWill, Ochsner’s free planning tool to prepare you and your loved ones for the future.