What to know about creating wills for seniors?
More than three quarters of Americans aged 65 and above have a will nowadays, although that number drops significantly to just over half of all Americans aged 50 to 64. This is good news for millions of adults, as even a simple will can go a long way towards making the inheritance and probate processes much easier for your loved ones.
But creating a will is not always enough. There are good and bad wills, as there are good and bad estate plans. One key principle is to regularly update your estate planning documents – that means revisiting and revising your wills, trusts, and other estate planning elements every few years, or with every major life-changing event.
If you have created a will in the past, now might be a good time to consider revisiting and revising it to adapt to the needs, circumstances, and changes of the present.
If you’ve never prepared an estate plan, consider this an appropriate impetus to do so. Estate planning takes a little bit of prep work but can ensure the smooth transition of your financial legacy, as well as help grow your family’s fortune over multiple generations. Before creating your first will, or revising a past will, it’s important to keep a few things in mind.
1. Determine Your Priorities
First and foremost, determine what is most important to you. Do you possess an heirloom of sentimental value? Is there a property you need distributed the right way? Is there a financial, emotional, or symbolic matter that you hold very close to your chest?
Determine your priorities in estate planning in general – not just will writing – and update them regularly. For example, would you rather certain assets be liquidated over others, and if so, how would you want their value to be distributed?
This way, you can always get straight to the point when discussing your estate with an estate planning professional, who can help you realize your wishes, and ensure that your priorities are translated into a concise estate plan.
It’s important to mention that beneficiaries receive what’s left of an estate after the decedent’s obligations to others have been paid (debts, creditors, designated out-of-will beneficiaries), so sitting down and discussing your priorities with an estate planning professional would allow them to draft an estate plan that protects crucial family heirlooms and assets from creditors, and ensures that they find their way into the right hands.
2. Find a Professional Partner
To that end, it’s important to work with a professional partner rather than turning a will or estate plan into a DIY project.
Tackling an estate plan without professional help can lead to unfortunate consequences later down the road – even long after you’re gone. Simple clerical errors can become problems that end up costing your family (and your estate) a small fortune to correct.
In many cases, when creating an estate plan of your own, you must keep in mind that whatever you’re likely to save right now, you will end up paying later – and then some.
An experienced estate planning professional will have no need to upsell you on a complicated plan. The best estate plans are simple and efficient, drafted to minimize the kind of clutter that can confuse your beneficiaries and testators, and bog down the inheritance process.
3. Pick a Skilled Testator
Drafting and notarizing a last will and testament is one thing. Executing it is another. You will need to choose a skilled testator or executor to turn the contents of your will into reality (with the help of your attorney and the local probate court). Pick someone who you trust, who has experience with logistics or accounting, and who is entirely dependable.
While only a brief occupation, being an executor is very much like working a second or third job, and your chosen executor will be in charge of managing and inventorying the contents of the estate, organizing a valuation of your belongings, notifying and contacting beneficiaries and creditors alike, and finally overseeing the distribution and dissolution of the estate – all over the course of anywhere from one half to two years.
4. Appoint a Secondary Executor
Your first choice might not always be available – which is why having a successor, or secondary executor, can save your family the trouble of determining who else might be a good fit for the job.
At the end of the day, any given executor can choose to decline the task, and it is always up to the probate court to identify and name the next available person to act as executor to the estate. There are a few formal requirements: the executor must be at least 18 years old with no felony convictions.
5. Sign and Witness Your Will
A crucial step to making sure your will is legitimate is going through the trouble of having it witnessed and notarized. It’s not an overly complicated requirement – simply sign the will in the presence of multiple different testifying witnesses, none of whom are (ideally) involved with the will, have the witnesses sign the will, and have the document notarized by a notary public.
This is to ensure that a will is legitimate, and not falsified, coerced, or otherwise created through fraudulent means. However, that doesn’t mean that an unsigned will is automatically thrown out. It’s just a little harder to legitimize, and much easier to question or challenge the authenticity of something like a verbal or unsigned will.
In certain states, handwritten (holographic) wills may be legitimized if a witness can testify that the will is in the handwriting of the decedent. Other states require handwritten wills to be signed by witnesses as well.
Keep in mind that only about half of the United States recognizes handwritten wills, including the states of Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
6. Consider Choosing a Guardian
While this might not be relevant to most seniors, those with children under the age of 18 will want to consider appointing a guardian and secondary guardian in their will.
The last will and testament is one of very few documents that can name a guardian for surviving children and dependents. If you are the parent or guardian to an underage person, you can use your will to ensure that someone trusted in the family will continue to provide childcare in your stead.
7. Pick a Safe Storage Space
Once your will has been notarized, it’s important to keep the original in a safe and secure location – one that certain people need to know how to access when the time is right, including your next of kin and your attorney.
While a safe at home is a common choice, it isn’t a bad idea to keep your original will in a safe deposit box, or with the county clerk.
8. Don’t Rely Entirely on One Document
An estate plan is, ultimately, more than a will. While you can take care of a lot of concerns with a last will and testament, there are many more you might not be able to address with just one document alone.
Trusts, living wills, and powers of attorney can be used to address end-of-life care preferences, name healthcare and financial proxies in cases of emergency, and help minimize your estate’s tax liability, as smooth out the inheritance process in complicated cases.