Megan Leonhardt reports:
"If you are going the DIY route, you’ll need to research your state’s laws. The rules can be quirky: Handwritten wills may not require any witnesses, for instance — but only half of states accept these wills as binding. A newly drafted, typed will now requires two witnesses’ signatures to be valid, wherever you are — but an older typed will that was executed in a state like Vermont or Georgia, which used to require three witnesses, will be subject to the old requirements unless it is updated. You may also want to know if your state has an estate or inheritance tax and how to plan for it...A will won’t cover all of your assets...Anything that’s in joint name or payable to a named beneficiary, such as life insurance policies or 401(k) balances, is outside the scope of a will...Before you even start a will, you should assign beneficiaries for as many accounts as possible...You can also create transfer-on-death or payable-on-death designations for checking, savings, and money market accounts, as well as certificates of deposit and U.S. bonds...The requirements vary by institution, though, so it’s worth making a call to find out what’s needed...Use the right language. You need to spell out who you are and the purpose of the document. Statements like 'I declare that this is my last will and testament' and 'I declare that I am of legal age to make this will, and that I am sound of mind' are not just for the movies. They’re critical to ensuring your will is taken seriously by your heirs and the courts...Be specific. If you are using a will to pass on your house, for instance, include the full address when identifying the property. For personal items, include a complete description. And use the full names of beneficiaries...Name an executor you trust — and tell them where to find your will. This is the person who will be wrapping up your affairs after your death and eventually distributing your assets. [T]he American Bar Association recommends naming a secondary executor or a co-executor, in case your first choice is unable to carry out the task or predeceases you...Appoint a guardian for minor children[.] For each child, you should name one person as a guardian and another as an alternate...It’s perfectly legal (but not necessary) to pick different guardians for each child...Spell out contingencies. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of a DIY will is thinking through all the contingencies...Say you’re leaving everything to your sister. But what if your sister predeceases you[?] Do you want the property to pass to her children? Or do you want to go to your other siblings? Describe the contingencies for each portion of your will...While a DIY will is better than nothing, lawyers argue that a professionally drafted document can do far more to protect your heirs — particularly if the beneficiaries you’d choose aren’t those provided by your state’s intestacy law. It might even cost less than you’d imagine. While a handwritten will won’t cost you a penny, in most states, a fill-in-the-blank formatted will, downloaded from a site like LegalZoom, will set you back about $100 — while a will drafted by an attorney can cost, on average, only about $375, says LegalZoom. (For a larger, more complex estate, with federal estate tax considerations and specific trusts or entities such as family limited partnerships, the price tag will be $1,000 or more — but complex estates should not be relying on DIY wills in the first place.) And at many firms...a will is billed as a flat fee, rather than an hourly rate. So if cost is a concern, you can call ahead to ask what the fees are. Don’t know where to start? Many bar associations...offer...lawyer referral services. Under such programs, lawyers have agreed to provide initial half-hour consultations that are generally free or cost less than $50. Paying a bit more now for a good, legally drafted will can also save your heirs money — particularly if they are not the beneficiaries designated by your state intestacy statutes...If your surviving family or friends are not the designated successors, they may have to spend thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars fighting for what they are entitled to."
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