52 Weeks: Wills, etc. – Wills

As a former estates paralegal, I really, really hesitate to even mention drafting your own Will. So much can go wrong when you don’t know all the possibilities. Some things only an attorney is likely to know. On the other hand, if you have no kids under eighteen and very few assets, then you might do all right with a site like www.legalzoom.com or with a Will form from a stationery store. “Wills and Trust Kit for Dummies” might also be helpful.

I am not an attorney and nothing I say here should be taken as legal advice. It’s always wise to consult an attorney about important legal matters. If you have minor children, significant assets, or greedy relatives, an attorney needs to draft your Will.

Take notice of what is required for the process of signing a Will. Different states require different things. You have to do it the way your state requires for it to be legal. Some states require notarization while other states don’t allow it. Different states require a different number of witnesses. In most states, you can sign your Will anywhere that you can assemble the required witnesses/notary; it doesn’t have to be done in a lawyer’s office.

There are several things you want to express in a Will:

  • What kind of funeral or cremation do you want? Also, put this in an easily found letter or tell your family what you want. People don’t always get around to looking at the Will until after the arrangements have been set in motion.
  • If you have minor children, who do you want to raise them? What if you and their other parent are both gone? If you don’t name a guardianfor your children, the judge will have to guess what you might have wanted, based only on what other people tell him.
  • It would be wise to name back-up guardians, in case the people who are your first choice can’t or won’t act. Raising children is a big responsibility. You should probably ask the people you want to be guardians before putting them in your Will. When I was young, my mother spent money she couldn’t easily afford to have a Will made. She wanted to be sure I wouldn’t fall into the hands of the foster care system. People often also state in a Will what they want to happen to any pets they may have.
  • Who do you want to have your car and personal property? List physical things like cars, furniture, and personal items in a separate attachment to the Will. You can easily change it without having to have the Will itself changed. I’ve changed my attachment a dozen times when I got rid of things or got new things. Because of the attachment, I didn’t have to change the Will itself. Make sure your state allows attachments to a Will.
  • Bank accountsand real estate can have a joint owner or beneficiary on them. That property will go directly to that joint owner or beneficiary. They are not affected at all by the Will. What if your savings account has someone on it as beneficiary, and in your Will you direct that it should go to someone else? In fact, it will go to the first person, the one named on the account as the beneficiary.
  • If you make someone a joint owner, they have immediate shared control over the property. A joint tenant on a bank account can make a withdrawal without your signature. They don’t have to wait for your death as a beneficiary would.
  • If you put a joint owner on your house, they can’t sell it without your signature. By the same token, you can’t sell it without their signature. This gives them the power to stop you from selling, if they choose to do so. Even kind, usually trustworthy people might put their own interests first in this kind of situation. So consider carefully before adding a joint owner.
  • Who should take charge? Name an executor, also called a personal representative, to carry out what you’ve put in your Will. Because things change, it’s wise to name at least one alternative executor in case the first one can’t or won’t take the job. Ask your potential executor(s) if they are willing to serve. You can save some costly attorney time by going to your appointment with all of these things thought out. Have all of your beneficiaries’ and executors’ names and addresses already written down to give to the lawyer.
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