Nobody likes to plan for death. Yet it’s one of the most important things you can do while you are still healthy. Having insurance policies, legal documents, and other plans in place can make it much easier for loved ones to handle your affairs, and to ensure that your assets are passed on according to your wishes. This blog post explains how to create a will in less than one hour, using the online service offered by nolo.com. It ties into the section in Personal Finance for Beginners In 30 Minutes, Vol. 2 called Four legal documents you must prepare now.
The first reaction many readers might have is, “why do I need to draw up a will now? I’m too young to die.” They have a point: Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that younger and middle-aged adults are far less likely to die than people aged 55 or older. For instance, 2011 data from the CDC found that people aged 25–34 had about a one in 1,000 chance of dying. That doesn’t sound like much.
However, the sheer numbers are staggering — more than 42,000 Americans in the 25–34 age group died in 2011. For people aged 35–44, more than 70,000 died in 2011. For people aged 45–54, 183,207 died that year.
These numbers aren’t intended to scare you. They are merely to illustrate that people like you and me are at risk, even if the risk is small.
This is not the only consideration. What happens if you don’t have a will, neglect to assign beneficiaries, or otherwise fail to prepare the relevant documentation? Your family members will have to deal with an unpleasant legal mess, and may lose a lot of money that otherwise should have gone to them.
The probate court, which is tasked with gathering assets and distributing them to inheritors and debtors, will almost certainly get involved. In the absence of documentation that spells out your wishes, the court will turn to relevant statutes — and potentially the arguments of lawyers hired by debtors, relatives, and other parties — to determine who gets what. Plans need to be put in place so that if the unthinkable does happen, your family members and loved ones will know what to do — and the people who matter most to you won’t need to waste time or money dealing with the mess.
Finally, online services make it cheap and easy to prepare a simple will. If you have a relatively straightforward situation, you can use online will generators or packaged will-making software. As I will show below, it takes less than an hour and costs less than $50. In other words, excuses like “it will take too much time” or “it will cost too much money” don’t apply — unless you have a complicated situation, in which case professional legal help is required. Ask a legal expert if you are unsure about your own situation.
My situation was relatively straightforward. I started at Nolo.com and read about the online will service it provides. It’s cheap ($35) and is customized according to the probate laws of 49 states (it is not valid in Louisiana or U.S. Territories). I went straight to the FAQ to determine what I needed to prepare. The list included:
- A rough inventory of your property (but if you plan to leave everything to one or a few people, you can skip this)
- A list of beneficiaries – that is, the people who will get your property
- A list of alternate beneficiaries – the people who will inherit your property if your first-choice beneficiary dies before you
- If you have young children, a list of your first and second choices for guardian
- A list of your first and second choices for executor
- Contact information for people you name as guardian, executor, or caretaker for your pet
- Information about debts that you want to forgive, including the date you lent the money and the amount you want to forgive
- Account numbers and locations of any accounts you want used to pay debts, expenses, and taxes
There was nothing complicated about any of this. My assets basically consist of my home, car, 401k and IRA accounts, taxable stock accounts, bank accounts, some heirlooms, and business interests in my company and a small startup in which I own some equity. Beneficiaries was also straightforward — everything will go to immediate family members. No one owes me money, and I don’t have much debt other than my mortgage and a relatively small student loan. I decided to pick family members to serve as guardians and executors (with friends as backups).
I paid $35 via credit card and got started. It took less than an hour — in fact, I believe it was closer to 30 or 40 minutes. There were a bunch of basic questions and then I had to answer the questions listed above, often providing backups in case someone named is no longer available or alive. My progress was shown on the screen:
At the end of the questionnaire, I was able to save a PDF copy of the will along with instructions for making it official — in my state, signing in front of two witnesses who were not direct beneficiaries, and initialing each page. There were a few other pieces of paper that needed to be signed or prepared, and instructions for how to store them. The document was about 20 pages long, with another 2 pages of instructions.
To be honest, finding the witnesses was the hardest part about this — it’s uncomfortable to approach friends or colleagues to ask them serve as witnesses. But it’s a necessary step to making the will official.
If you’re interested in learning about the three other “must-have” legal documents I recommend, check out Personal Finance for Beginners In 30 Minutes, Vol. 2. It’s all covered in the last chapter.