Death. It’s unavoidable, at least for now. And though you may be young and healthy now, if you are older than 18, you’re an adult — so it’s time to start thinking about what would happen in a worst-case scenario.
That means creating a last will and testament, a binding document that outlines how you want your belongings disbursed after you die. While there are different ways to write a will, all legally valid wills achieve the same goal of making sure assets — from bank accounts to physical possessions — are divided as you choose, versus having someone else decide for you.
“We all have assets,” Roman Aminov, a New York City-based lawyer who specializes in estate planning, said in an interview. That means you can never be too young to start securing your legacy. So, even if you don’t have kids or a spouse, you’ll want to create a will anyway, to specify clearly what to do with your money after you’re gone.
When you die, your assets and debts (like credit cards, for example) usually go through what’s called probate court, where a judge rules how they will be divided. If your will is in order and no one contests it, your assets will be distributed as designated in your will.
And if you think wills are just for the rich, old or married, you’re wrong. What do you want to happen to your pet after you’re gone? Do you want your savings donated to charity or given to a niece or nephew? You can even use a will to set aside funds for your burial or provide instructions for having your ashes scattered. Here are five key things to know about writing a will:
1. What should you put in your will?
Your will should lay out how you want your assets, debts, and taxes taken care of after your passing. First, figure out what your assets are: The biggies are likely your bank account, investment accounts like a 401(k), your house if you own it, your car and anything else with a cash value.
One way to make executing your will easy is by going directly into your financial accounts and adding beneficiaries, pay-on-death designees or co-signers. When you provide instructions for an account to transfer on death, that usually means the account can be handled outside of the probate process — then you can simply note in your will that you want your account designations honored.
For everything else, you’ll want to make as detailed a list as possible. You can always cross things off if, say, you don’t really care who gets your houseplants or old clothes.
Next, you’ll want to name an executor, usually a trusted family member or close friend friend. They’ll be given the responsibility of executing the will, which means disbursing your assets, settling debts and paying taxes.
If you have children or pets, the will should also name who you want to be their guardians. If you’re married, your spouse will automatically take custody of any children you might have. But depending upon your family situation, the other biological parent may not be granted custody, so you’ll definitely need to specify who should care for your kids.
Since your will may not be read until well after your passing, Aminov recommends leaving your final burial — or cremation — instructions in a protected but more immediately accessible document. For example, you can do this online at Parting Wishes, Funeral Inspirations or similar websites. It can be a good idea (to take the burden off surviving family) to set aside cash for burial expenses and tell your executor how to access it.
2. Should you write your will yourself or get help?
Most people can DIY or write a basic will for free. It’s not that complicated, so long as you adhere to the requirements of your state. (LegalZoom has instructions for doing so here.) You usually need a minimum of two individuals to witness you signing the will for it to be legally binding, according to Nolo. Most states require these witnesses to be unbiased individuals who won’t inherit anything from your estate. You also need to sign and date the will.
There are certain cases in which you’ll want to get a lawyer involved, like if you’re in a same-sex relationship, own a small business or, for whatever reason, worry your will might be contested. Attorneys can help you minimize the taxes on your estate, make sure your will complies with state laws and help you set up a trust for your assets (more on that below). Here is Mic’s guide to finding a great lawyer you can trust.
3. What happens if you don’t have a will?
State laws determine how your assets are distributed if you don’t have a will. The typical order in which people inherit your assets is spouse, children, parents, then siblings. However, the laws in each state can vary significantly.
Here’s an example from New York:
If you don’t have a will, beneficiaries may experience a delay in the disbursement of assets while the probate court appoints an administrator to distribute the estate, according to LegalZoom.
4. Do you need to create a trust, too?
There are times when you might need more than just a will, in which case you’ll want to establish a so-called trust. These are more complicated than wills and are usually for people with large estates, messy family situations or those likely to die soon.
Whereas a will has an executor, a living trust has a trustee, which can be you as long as you are alive. Then you must designate a trustee to take over after you die, the people who will receive your property after you die or become incapacitated. Lastly, you must get it notarized in order for it to be valid.
The terms within a living trust can be changed at any time. If you become incapacitated, having a trust can allow you to determine in advance who you want to take control of managing assets held within the trust.
A trust can make the transfer of assets easier too, because assets in a living trust don’t have to pass through probate court, where it can take months to disburse money and property to new owners.
“With a death certificate in one hand and the trust document in the other, your successor trustee can deal immediately and directly with mortgage companies, realtors, banks, tax accountants and virtually anyone else necessary to fulfill the directions contained in the trust,” attorney Darren Weiss wrote on LinkedIn. “Just think of it as a change of management triggered by the death of the grantor.”
5. How to secure your digital legacy
There’s one more asset that usually isn’t covered by the law — your social media accounts.
Not spelling out what you want to happen to your accounts could cause a lot of headaches for your loved ones. RocketLawyer has created a sample social media will you can use to designate a digital executor (if separate from your “regular” executor) and leave instructions for your digital assets.
Another option is to simply make a list for your executor of all login information. Companies like Legacy Locker/Password Box, Securesafe’s Data Inheritance, Asset Lock, or Cirrus Legacy can also store this kind of information for you.
Alternately, you can make arrangements directly on your social media accounts. Facebook, Google and many other platforms all have policies in place for handling your profiles and accounts after you die. For example, Facebook allows you to designate a legacy contact to manage your account in the event you don’t want it taken down. Google has an inactive account manager page that lets you specify who has permission to access your account.
Instagram, meanwhile, doesn’t currently offer a similar service; you’ll have to have your family members submit instructions if you want your account deleted. Otherwise, it will be memorialized forever.
Whatever you do, don’t put your online passwords in your will — that is, unless you want them to become part of the public record.
Sign up for the Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life. Additionally, for all your burning money questions, check out Mic’s credit, savings, career, investing and health care hubs for more information — that pays off.