Thinking about what happens when you die isn’t something many of us wish to do.
It’s likely the reason so many avoid drafting a will.
As an estate planning attorney, I spend much of my time helping people think through what happens after their death and helping those who have been named to manage the affairs of someone who has died.
What I have seen over the years is that having a well-drafted will matters.
Certainly all of your belongings and money can be divided and distributed to your family without a valid will. We have laws that tell us how to do that.
But what can’t be done without your participation is dividing up and distributing your assets thoughtfully — with consideration for those who you care about most and your own particular financial history.
Dividing a bank account equally is easy. Addressing the truck that was given to your daughter 20 years ago (which frustrated your son) or the financial assistance you gave to one of your sons over the years cannot be done at your death without a will.
Perhaps an even division of all that you own isn’t the fairest distribution. Only you know your past and how to balance distribution for your family.
Like many, you may have a blended family. Do you want to provide for your stepchildren? Do you want to provide for your second spouse but also want assurance that your children receive assets when your spouse later dies?
You need a will to do so.
Money is easily divided, but how do you divide family heirlooms and jewelry?
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Without a will, this “tangible personal property” serves as the source of many arguments. Who receives mom’s wedding ring or china serving bowl?
When you draft a will, you can write down who receives what. If you decide how to distribute your collections to your family, then they don’t have to argue about them when you are gone.
Who will take care of your minor children if you die young is likely the hardest and most important decision to consider.
If you don’t have a will, the court will make an appointment after, perhaps, an argument among your own family members. Without a will in place, you have no say in deciding who will manage money for your children or how that money will be used.
A will allows you to choose guardians for your children, to create a trust to hold money for them, and to name the trustee who will be responsible for managing the money.
Whether you have a will or not, someone is named to manage your affairs when you die.
If you have a will, you choose who serves in this role. If you don’t have a will, the court will decide who will manage your affairs and will require that individual to post bond.
Taking the time to write a will and set down your wishes makes the process much easier for your family. No arguing about who will serve as executor … no posting bond … no time and money wasted while the dust settles on the arguments.
So if by now you are convinced that you need a will, what next? Engaging an attorney to draft a will for you is the traditional process.
With a well-chosen attorney, you will receive good advice and counsel on each of the decisions that need to be made. And you will benefit from the attorney’s experience working with families over the years.
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Some people attempt to draft their own will using online drafting tools. The concept of drafting a will isn’t that complicated. These are the basic questions: What do I have? Who do I love? How do I want to give what I have?
However, ensuring that the answers to these questions are thoughtfully considered and that they are properly written can be complicated.
A will is only valid if it is signed in accordance with state law. I have witnessed many instances of people drafting their own will but failing to execute it properly or not understanding the choices they have selected on a “form” document.
Addressing the particulars of your financial past and your family can only be done by you. Without a valid will, your family may face many hurt feelings, arguments, expenses and conflict.
This is a good time to resolve to put a will on your list of new year’s resolutions.
Kyle Wilcox is a lawyer with Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman in Cedar Rapids. His practice focuses on estate planning, probate, tax and general corporate and business law.