Trying to navigate the process of dividing up an estate without the guidance of a will can be an absolute nightmare. But even so, in America, it’s estimated that up to 64% of the population hasn’t written one.

If you’ve been putting off the process because it seems too complicated, it’s time to stop waiting. Here are five of the most important things you should know about writing a will.

1. What Happens If I Don’t Have a Will?

There are countless horror stories of people dying without a will and leaving their estates to fall into chaos. Someone who passes away without a valid will and testament is known as an intestate. Once this label has been applied, your finances and belongings are in the hands of the state to seize or divide up among your surviving relatives according to the law.

In many cases, if you were in a long-term partnership that hadn’t been ratified by traditional or common-law marriage, your partner won’t have any rights to your estate after your passing. The only way to legally leave them an inheritance is to write them into your will. 

2. Do I Need a Lawyer?

You’re not required by law to have an attorney assist in writing your will. Even so, if you’re not familiar with legal documents, a lawyer can provide you with valuable information and guidance.

Wills are valid as long as they meet your state’s requirements, so make sure you’re clear on what those are before you get started.

3. Naming a Witness and Executor

In order to be considered legally binding, every will needs a witness’s signature. You can choose anyone to be a witness, but it’s best to select someone who isn’t a beneficiary in order to prevent a potential conflict of interest (known as a disinterested witness). Some states require one witness, some require two or more, and some require the document to be notarized.

The executor is the person who is responsible for reading your will, contacting your beneficiaries, and making sure that your wishes are followed. You can name any trusted friend or relative as executor, but if your estate or affairs are complicated, it may be worth it to name an attorney instead. When writing a will, make sure it allows your executor to take care of any outstanding bills or debts after your passing.

5. Valuing and Distributing Your Estate

Getting an accurate valuation of your estate is an important step to take early on in the will planning process. This includes identifying all of your assets, including property and possessions, and debts, including loans and credit card balances. This number can change, so be sure to have your assets valued on a regular basis.

To divide up your estate to specific individuals, you have a few options. First, you can write all the instructions explicitly into your will. Second, you can leave them in a letter of instruction—an addendum to your will that isn’t legally binding in some states.

Finally, you could leave your entire estate to one person that you trust to divide up your belongings according to your wishes. This option can be risky, so be sure to think it through.

It’s Never Too Early to Prepare Your Will

There’s no such thing as “too soon” when it comes to writing your last will and testament, but there definitely is such a thing as “too late.” Use this information to get started writing it today. For more helpful legal advice, make sure to check back with our law archives regularly.

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