The thought of preparing your own will might feel a little daunting, bringing an onslaught of emotions like fear or sadness.
In fact, a Gallup poll in 2020 found that less than half of Americans have a will, or how they would like their money and estate handled in the case of their death. The poll also showed that Americans ages 65 and up are the most likely to have a will.
Regardless of age, Casey Ferri, an estate planning and elder law attorney based in North Carolina, told TODAY Parents that it is important to have a will so that you get to be in control of what happens with your own assets.
What is a will?
A will is a legal document that establishes a person's wishes regarding the distribution of their assets — money, real estate, etc. — and the care of any minor children.
"If you don’t have a will, then state law will control who gets your assets and when," Ferri explained, adding that these laws are called laws of intestacy, and "they are almost never what the client would have chosen for themselves."
Ferri added, "Having a will can save an enormous amount of time and expense in estate administration and the process of having a guardian appointed for your minor children should the need arise."
Difference between a will and a living will
Ferri, who currently practices on a limited basis for Conrad Trosch & Kemmy, PA in Charlotte, said that "despite the similar and often confusing names" there is a big difference between a will and a living will.
A living will is a document that allows you to decide and state in advance how you want to be treated under certain medical circumstances, if you are unable to make those decisions for yourself at a later time.
"These differ by state law, but they generally cover end-of-life decision-making and treatment options," Ferri explained. "General medical decisions not related to end of life care are typically covered in a Health Care Power of Attorney. Some states combine these two documents into one directive."
Unlike a living will, which specifically provides instructions for medical care during your lifetime, a will — often referred to as last will and testament — allows you to decide in advance who you want to receive your assets upon your death, and who you want to be in charge of handling the administration of your estate.
"If you have minor children, a will also allows you to name a guardian for them," Ferri said.
How to write a will
Ferri told TODAY Parents that when creating a will, think about the “what,” the “who” and the “how.”
She recommended asking yourself the following questions:
- What assets do you have?
- Who do you want to leave them to, and who do you want to be in charge of making sure that happens?
- Who do you want to be responsible for your minor children?
- How do you want the assets distributed — outright, over a period of time in trust, or something else?
"Lastly, you will want to consider who you would want to inherit your assets if your primary beneficiary happened to die before you," Ferri told TODAY.
For people preparing a will for the first time, try not to be overwhelmed by the process.
"Find an attorney who can explain things and answer your questions in a way that you can understand," Ferri said. "There are no dumb questions (and) if you don’t know who to call, ask around to friends who have been happy with their attorney, or call the local bar association in the county where you live and ask them for a referral to an estate planning attorney."
Related: Tips to make your money go further
Tips for writing a will
Ferri told TODAY that a will is not the only document or consideration needed for a comprehensive estate plan.
"Creating an estate plan is a great opportunity to account for and consolidate various financial holdings that may have slipped through the cracks, like that small 401k you had three jobs ago and never moved when you left," Ferri explained.
The North Carolina-based attorney also warned against forgetting about beneficiary designations.
"They almost always override what your will says, and if you’re divorced, you probably don’t want your ex-spouse still named as the primary beneficiary of your life insurance," Ferri said.
When to update your will
Ferri told TODAY that you can — and should — update your will.
"Wills and other estate planning documents are not meant to be done once and then never updated again," she explained. "Things change over the course of your lifetime — assets change, family dynamics change, children are born and grow up, and all of these things may warrant changes in your documents."
Ferri recommends that clients pull their documents out at least every five years.
"Just check to make sure that everything is still as they would want it based on current life circumstances," she said.