If you know me well, you know I’m a planner. I like to organize my life as much as possible. So, it should come as no surprise that I also like planning for my death. It’s not that I’m planning to die young, I just like planning ahead. So, as I was putting my List of 50 Things together, along with planning my funeral (#16 on my List), I also added write a will (#7).
Good reasons to write a will
According to a survey by AARP, 60% of Americans lack a will or estate planning. Sadly, if you die without a will, your assets are frozen until the court can go through all of the details of your estate. This is called probate. Then, depending on your state’s intestate laws, a decision will be made regarding who will receive your assets. You can avoid probate by placing all accounts, including auto and property deeds, into both yours and your spouse’s name. However, if both of you die at the same time, the estate will have to go through probate. Or, if you’re like me, there isn’t a spouse, so that’s not viable safety net.
Meeting with the estate planning lawyer
Wondering if you need a will? If you have something of value to leave behind when you die, you need a will. Last week, I met with a lawyer in Lehi to draw up a will. The lawyer appointment was paid for through my Legalease benefit I get with work.
I sat across the table from the lawyer (he looked like he had just graduated from law school) while he asked me various questions and took notes. It was a lot more straightforward than I was expecting. Maybe that’s because I don’t have a lot to leave behind. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a lawyer, and I’m unaware of the intricacies that go into preparing a will. However, if you can buy a will template on NOLO, it seems like it can’t be too complicated to prepare a will, right? In any case, I’m glad I went. Here’s what I learned…
The main purpose of a will is to distribute your property after you die. It ensures that all of your assets are divided the way you intended. Sometimes, people do odd things with their wills. Take Napoleon for instance. His will requested that “his head be shaved and the hair be distributed among his closest friends. Please, if any of you are thinking of leaving me your hair, let me save you the trouble. I’m not a fan of hair unless it’s on a person’s head. However, I’m sure Napoleon’s friends were touched by the gesture.
“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.” – Ambrose Pierce
The need for a trust
Although I went to the estate planning lawyer to draw up a will, I learned that In Utah, if you have property, a business, or a home (over $45K), you actually need a trust. A will is not enough. As I met with the lawyer, he told me that estateplanning lawyers often won’t point out the importance of trusts because “wills are the income today and probate is retirement.” In other words, estate lawyers continue to make money from their clients if they don’t mention probate upfront. People unknowingly focus only on the will. But when they die, their loved ones are left to hire a lawyer to get the assets out of probate. This can take months and can cost over $5,000. How come I’d never heard of this before?
What can be put in a will
In addition to the importance of a trust, I also learned there are some things you shouldn’t try to do in a will. You shouldn’t put conditions on your gifts, leave money or property to your pet, include wishes, or outline your funeral arrangements. I have to admit, I thought you could put just about anything in a will and it would be legally binding.
Here’s what you can put in a will:
- Designate guardians for your pets and children
- Decide who will take care of your affairs
- Leave specific gifts (money, property, possessions)
- Exclude individuals
- Decide what should happen in a medical emergency (living will)
Unfortunately, I learned that my legal benefit does not cover trusts. So now, I have a little more work to do. At least I have the will completed. My former brother-in-law, who is an estate planning lawyer, assures me I can fill out forms online and create a legally-binding trust for a lot less than what the lawyer wants to charge me ($1,800). Given that I want to save the money, I’m doing a little more research to figure out how I can get the trust done without a lawyer. After spending some time online, I do think I can figure out how to do it myself. After all, where there’s a will, there’s a way…