Writing a will can be quite the daunting task to take on, and the numbers show that Americans all too often delay their estate planning—or avoid it altogether. A widely cited Caring.com survey from 2017 shows that only 42% of people in the U.S. have a will, while 81% of people 70 years or older had written a will already.
Why Having a Will Is Important
Experts working in the field of estate planning, a legal practice that includes wills and assets planning, often point to the unpleasant nature around writing a will. Experts believe this is the main reason why so many people avoid writing them.
Delaying estate planning may allow younger people to temporarily avoid the inevitable, but there are other reasons why people, young and old, tend to postpone putting their end-of-life plans in writing. Nearly half of the responders to the 2017 survey explained that they “just haven’t gotten around to it.” But the younger generation’s present economic insecurity also plays a role.
A person may assume that if he or she has very few assets, there is little reason to create a will. Still, this—according to many legal experts and bar associations—is a widely held misconception. Wills don’t only deal with possessions, with some not necessarily being financially valuable. A will can help determine the guardianship of your children, advocate for certain medical treatments, assign a home for your pets and choose who should receive your sentimental objects.
“You should designate someone to manage your assets and make health care and personal care decisions for you if you ever become unable to do so for yourself,” advises the State Bar of California. Determining who handles your medical care is one aspect of estate planning that is important regardless of your financial situation. Children, as well, offer a compelling enough reason to make concrete plans in the event of your untimely death.
While most attorneys advise that anyone with children have a will, only about 36% of people with children under age 18 replied in the survey that they had one finalized and in place. While courts aim to place children with appropriate care in the event of their parents’ death, the best way to control where that may be is through a will.
Do’s and Don’ts When Writing a Will
If you are one of the vast majority of adult Americans without a will and are now considering drafting one, there are many resources available to help you, as well as mistakes to be wary of. A will is meant to speak for you when you are no longer able to do so. If the will is written or prepared incorrectly, your plans may not be executed as they were intended to. Here are some helpful things to keep in mind when writing a will.
• Seek out the advice of a qualified attorney with experience in estate planning. While there are plenty of resources available online to help you draft a simple will, many people will run into problems attempting to do so without consulting with a professional. Further, if you or your family has a large estate, the attorney you seek to draft your will should be up to date on current tax laws.
• Find a credible person to act as a witness. This person should not be a beneficiary, as that may cause a conflict of interest.
• Don’t rely solely on a joint will between you and your spouse. Chances are you and your partner will pass away at different times, there will be items that aren’t jointly owned, and many states will not recognize joint wills.
• Don’t leave your pets out of your will. Although you may see them as a family member, the law sees them as property.
• Make a plan for emergency and end-of-life care, also known as a living will. This will offer instruction about the type of medical care you’d like to receive. A living will provide doctors with instructions for how to treat you should you fall terminally ill or unconscious. Do Not Resuscitate orders, conversely, do not require a living will, and are primarily an agreement between a chronically ill person and his or her doctor.
• Don’t create alternative copies of your will with “creative” elements added to it to dress up an otherwise bland legal document. Those additions could render your will invalid and not legally binding.
• Ensure that any person chosen as executor, power of attorney, witness, or other substantial role is willing and able to handle the responsibilities that come with these specific titles.
• Don’t put off updating your will regularly. This can become an issue if a divorce, birth, or death occurs in the time since you first created your will, making for some potentially dramatic family spats. It’s especially important to update your will after life-changing events occur, or if your income and assets increase substantially.