It is estimated that only about one-third of adults have an estate document such as a will in place. If you’re not in the one-third, you should be. A will is an instrument of power and by creating a will, we are taking the first step toward providing clarity and guidance regarding the distribution of our assets and mitigating some of the burden on our family members during an already challenging time. Crucially, a will gives you control over the distribution of your assets because without one, the state decides what becomes of your property without regard to your priorities.
A last will and testament can typically be broken down into four main parts:
1. Executors - Most wills begin by naming an executor. Executors are responsible for carrying out the wishes outlined in a will. This involves assessing the value of the estate, gathering the assets, paying inheritance tax and other debts (if necessary), and distributing assets among beneficiaries. It’s recommended that you name at least two executors, in case your first choice is unable to fulfill the obligation.
2. Guardians - A will allows you to designate a guardian for your minor children. Whomever you appoint, you will want to make sure beforehand that the individual is able and willing to assume the responsibility. For those with minor children, this may be the most important part of a will since, if you die without naming a guardian, the court will decide who takes care of your children.
3. Gifts - This section enables you to identify people or organizations to whom you wish to give gifts of money or specific possessions, such as jewelry or a car. You can also specify conditional gifts, such as a sum of money to a minor child, but only when they reach a certain age.
4. Estate - Your estate encompasses everything you own, including real property, financial investments, cash, and personal possessions. Once you have identified specific gifts you would like to distribute, you can apportion the rest of your estate in equal shares among your heirs, or you can split it into percentages.
The law does not require that a will be drawn up by a professional, and some people choose to create their own wills at home. But when it comes to wills, there is little room for error. You will not be around when the will is read to correct technical errors or clear up confusion. Therefore, this isn’t a DIY project and we highly recommended that you enlist the help of an estate planning professional, especially if you have a large estate or complex family situation.
Don’t stop with just a will. It's important to note that a will is only one component of an overall estate strategy, as most people should also have a living will, which details preferences for end-of-life medical intervention, and powers of attorney for healthcare and financial matters, which designates an agent who can make healthcare decisions and effect financial transactions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated or otherwise unable to do them yourself. Some may also benefit from having a living trust which gives you more control over how your assets are distributed and also keeps your financial affairs out of the public eye (whereas the probate process is a matter of public record).
Lastly, beneficiary designations on all financial property are crucially important as they prevent assets from being distributed according to state law (via the probate process) and also supersede what is stated in your will, so they should be reviewed periodically to ensure they’re aligned with your wishes.
Don’t set it and forget it! A comprehensive review of your will (and overall estate plan) is recommended every five years or so as changes in your health, financial circumstances or tax and estate law could require updates to your plan. It may be appropriate to update your plan sooner in the event of major life changes such as marriage, divorce, births or death, or significant changes to estate law, your assets or business interests.
Preparing for the eventual distribution of your assets may not sound like fun, and many procrastinate because they assume the process will be long, potentially emotionally taxing and costly. But a will puts the power in your hands to create a lasting legacy for your loved ones. If you don’t have a will, or if it’s been a number of years since you’ve reviewed it, we suggest making this a priority this fall. Having a plan in plan can help provide peace of mind for you and your loved ones.
The views expressed represent an assessment at a specific point in time, are opinions only and should not be relied upon as investment advice regarding investments, strategies, sectors or markets in general. The above commentary has been obtained from sources we believe are reliable, but we cannot guarantee their accuracy or completeness. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. This is not a complete analysis of every material fact. All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice.
The information contained in this document does not constitute the rendering of legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinions on specific facts or matters. Talk to your financial advisor before acting on information in this document.