“You don’t know when you are going to die. You have to create a will if you want to legally make sure that your property passes to the loved ones you choose,” says Lori Anne Douglass, a partner at Moses & Singer L.L.P., who specializes in estate planning.
A will is a legal declaration of a person’s wishes regarding the disposal of his property or estate after death; it may also include details on the guardianship for minor children. Unfortunately, drafting a will is something that many people fail to do.
Often, it is the property with the least financial value but the most emotional value that can cause strife between heirs, says Bradley A. Thomas, a member of the Washington Bar Association, one of the nation’s first black law groups.
Without a will, when a person dies no one can access the money in the deceased person’s solely owned bank account, transfer ownership of their vehicles or houses, or collect stock or liquid assets, says Douglass, who is corporate council for Earl G. Graves Publishing Co.
When a person dies without a will they are called intestate and their property will be distributed according to law. “[When you draft a will] you are taking as much control over your affairs as you can, rather than letting the state control them,” says Thomas.
Basic wills can be created for about $70 on websites like Nolo.com and Legalzoom.com, but both Douglass and Thomas recommend hiring a lawyer who specializes in wills and estate planning. An attorney can ensure that the will is less likely to be contested and minimize the time and expense of the probate process, which involves the collection and appraisal of assets, payment of debts, and dispersal of assets, according to the deceased’s wishes.
“It would not be out of ordinary that the will for an estate like Michael Jackson’s would be more than $10,000,” says Thomas. “For the average person who does not have that kind of estate a will might cost from $600 to $2,000.”
Here are four steps Thomas and Douglass recommend when preparing to draft a will:
Take an inventory of what you own. Determine exactly what are your assets, your debts, and providing you have more assets than debts, decide who you want to leave your assets to, what and how much of the assets each person will receive and consider your charitable intentions, says Douglass. Update your will regularly as you gain or lose assets or as your family situation changes. Every time a new will is drafted, it should specifically revoke all prior wills.
Select a person you trust to carry out your affairs. The person you choose to be in charge of your estate is called your Executor, or Personal Representative. The role of the Executor is to make sure that the original will is filed with the court and to oversee the probate process. If a person dies without a will then the court will determine who should be in charge of your estate.
“Pick someone who is honest, will follow through and will take care of all of the final matters,” says Douglass. The Executor is also responsible for filing and paying all taxes for the deceased, including but not limited to estate and income tax, explains Douglass.