By: Michael Gunning
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When Should You Write Your First Will?
For most folks, the initial inspiration to write your first will – in addition to getting other estate planning details in order – usually comes from major life changes.
Here are some common life events that are likely to motivate a person to think about the estate planning process. However, we also want to state that our best advice would be to never wait until a traumatic (or happy) event reminds you of your own mortality. If you don’t already have a Will in place, think about making one now.
Becoming a parent. The birth of a child is often the greatest tipping point for most families to write your first will, although it’s also the most challenging time. Folks get especially stuck on who will be the custodial guardian to their children – which is another term for the individual who would look after the children if the parents were gone.
Parents would do well to also ascertain a financial custodian. Over the years we’ve often seen parents give the guardian and financial custodianship responsibilities to different people to incorporate some checks and balances.
For one client, having his two children at home while he embarked on an exciting vacation with his wife was enough to kick off his aspiration to write a will. He stated that “We had always told ourselves that we needed to write one but had always come up with an excuse – time, cost or need – to put it off.” This is a pretty common line of thinking – but we urge you to consider handling your own will before you’re in a situation where you can no longer state your wishes.
Watching a loved one pass away. For some, witnessing a relative or peer pass away reminds them of their own mortality and sparks the need to create a will and get other legal documents in order. Individuals often see something that happened to someone they know or love – perhaps a parent died, a friend died – and they quickly realize that either things are running smoothly because they have a good estate plan, or they don’t exactly go smoothly because people lack these essential planning documents.
If you already have a will in order, seeing a friend or family member die may also be a wake-up call to ensure that your parents and siblings spend some time to get their own estate-planning documents going.
Getting married. Combining your assets with a spouse or partner may trigger the creation of a first will, regardless of whether you have children. It’s around this time when many people start thinking of getting married or sharing assets with somebody else, that suddenly you start to gain some clarity on what might happen to your assets when you pass away.
Occasionally the purchase of a first home or a sudden middle-of-the-night realization that you have now accrued a significant amount of property will trigger the writing of a first will. You also should note that in many cases workplace retirement accounts or life insurance policies may allow you to designate a beneficiary or beneficiaries as well.
If you’ve procrastinated on writing a will, consider this article your wake-up call to get started. We also recommend making sure that you have a health care directive, which conveys your medical wishes. Many states have statutory language for both health care and financial powers of attorney that individuals can use.
Dying without a will, or intestate, doesn’t always mean the state will seize all of your money, like many people fear. Nevertheless, having legal documents on file will benefit your survivors. If a person dies without a will, it’s usually not as bad as some people would assume, but it will cost a family more time and money than would be necessary otherwise.
Read our other article on Getting Your Estate Organized.