Planning

Parents, Where’s Your Will?

“If you have minor children…you would be stupid not to have a will,” I read recently in an Amazon review. That would make my wife and me, until recently, Mr. and Mrs. Stupid.

Finally, as of last month, we’re no longer among the 65% of Americans who don’t have a will. We used Nolo Press’s excellent Quick & Legal Will Book, which includes a book of instructions plus templates on a CD-ROM. The wills you’ll produce using this book hold up in court and cover simple estate planning situations.

Now that we’ve finished the process, I can urge you, without being a hypocrite, to write your will. Here are a few lessons I learned along the way.

Talking about it gets easier

There are two reasons people don’t write a will. One is that they think it’s going to be expensive or involve a lot of paperwork. Don’t sweat it: it’ll probably be simple and cheap.

More commonly, however, people avoid writing a will because it means talking openly about terrible things such as death and your spouse’s relatives. Who wants to start a conversation with, “So, let’s say we both die next week. What will happen to our kids?” (Buying life insurance involves a lot of the same agonizing talk, but this is even worse.)

After a couple of conversations like this, however, the feeling of impending doom (“if I talk about this, it might actually happen”) wears off. I now feel better equipped to talk about weighty issues with my spouse than I did previously, a nice fringe benefit.

Everybody gets a will!

There is such a thing as a joint will, but you don’t want to use it: they’re unnecessarily complicated and not recognized in all states. If you’re married, each spouse should have their own will, although they should be largely identical. If you’re unmarried but living together or domestically partnered, it’s that much more important to have a will, because you can’t assume that you assets will automatically go to your partner when you die.

You’re doing it for the kids

The most important reason to make a will is naming a guardian for your children. If you don’t do this, you leave the decision up to a judge. Most people, including us, choose a sibling or a trusted family friend. Don’t choose a grandparent; they’ve already raised you, and while they’re unlikely to decline the responsibility of raising your kids, it’s not fair or prudent to saddle them with it, either.

The guardian will also have the responsibility for spending the money you’ve left to your children. Because of life insurance, this could be a whole lot of money. Choose someone you trust with money as well as kids. And yes, you have to ask the person; don’t just put their name down in the document and assume they’ll be willing to serve.

A lot of important stuff happens outside the will

Beneficiary and joint designations on your bank accounts, investment accounts, and insurance policies take precedence over your will. During the process of writing your will, you need to go through all of these and make sure they correspond to your intentions. If you have all your accounts in Mint, you can start going down the list right now, even before you start actually drafting your will. Most banks, brokerages, and retirement plans let you change the beneficiaries easily on their website; for our life insurance policies, we had to mail in a form.

I found several mistakes while doing this, including individual accounts that should have been joint accounts. Fixed!

Yes, you might need a lawyer

If your life involves business interests, charitable trusts, huge tracts of land, or anything else non-boring, a simple will template won’t work for you. And as you get older and wealthier, you may want to establish a living trust in addition to a will. (Nolo has a book on those, too.) But most of the will-less can get away with the basic form.

Can I get a witness?

You’ll need to get your wills notarized in the presence of two witnesses (not counting the notary public). The witnesses can’t be beneficiaries of the will and shouldn’t be family members. We went to the UPS Store (which always has a notary on hand), brought along one friend, and convinced a random guy making copies to be our other witness. Everybody needs to bring ID. The witness just signs an affidavit saying they saw you sign the will. They’re not agreeing to anything blood-oathy.

The atmosphere was solemn inside the UPS Store as my wife and I signed our names to the documents. Okay, actually, the clerk was impatient and our friend/witness was making jokes about whether we were of sound mind. I’m glad the process is over and my intentions are legally set down on paper. I hope they never have to be invoked.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.