It's tough to think about writing a will. No one wants to consider their own death, let alone the awful idea that you and your spouse would pass away at the same time. But it does happen. I spoke with Rebecca Geller, president of The Geller Law Group, who helped me understand writing a will from a mom's point-of-view (she's a mom of two). We talked about some common myths; here's what I learned:
We don't need a will since we don't have any money.
I've always felt like “we have no money,” but Rebecca pointed out that when you add up life insurance, retirement accounts, and a house, there are assets to consider in the event of your death. This “estate,” your assets, are what you plan for when writing a will. If you pass away without a will, you will have no say over who receives those assets, which leaves your children and the court system the job of figuring it out. A will is also where you name the guardian of your child(ren). Without your explicit instructions, it is up to a judge to determine who raises your children.
We already have a will. We did it on the internet.
Unfortunately, many of the wills done using online legal programs like LegalZoom, Nolo and Rocket Lawyer may not entirely meet your needs (according to Consumer Reports, Sept. 2012). In some cases, these wills are challenged in court because of outdated tax laws or lack of state/county specificity (Consumer Reports, July 2011). Using a family lawyer in your home state means that your will is legally up-to-date on any state or federal laws that apply to your situation. Rebecca urges that you have your will done accurately and correctly so that it will not be refused during probate. Probate is the legal process of settling the estate of a deceased person, and it happens whether or not you have a will. It can be very time-consuming, expensive, and annoying for your loved ones.
We're fine. We made a will ten years ago.
Rebecca suggests you update your will every 3-5 years, or any time there is a change in family status: birth, adoption, divorce, or death. Big changes in state tax laws (such as the big changes that happened in Virginia in 2012) are another time to review and possibly revise your will; a lawyer is necessary to ensure that your documents are up to date with your family’s circumstances as well as the law. You may also want to consider creating a trust for your children in addition to your will.
Trusts are for rich people.
At least, that’s what I've always thought. It turns out there are other reasons to create a trust for your children when writing your will. According to Rebecca, the trust is a critical legal tool when children under 25 are involved to protect your children's interests and inheritance. So what is a trust? With a trust, you can put conditions on how your money is distributed upon your death–such as designating funds for college education, wedding, down payment on a home, or special needs. That way, you don't have an 18-year-old buying a flashy sports car instead of spending the money on college. In addition, a trust keeps your affairs private and allows you to avoid probate altogether. Trusts are very common for families with young children and highly recommended by financial advisors.
Creating a will or trust is hard/too time consuming/too confusing.
We all have things on the “to do” list that get pushed to the bottom, but writing a will is really important. You take the time every day to make decisions about your children and your money. Instead of giving that power over to a judge after you pass away, you have the power to do so now. With a typical estate planning session, expect it to take about 45-60 minutes With some lawyers, such as Rebecca, you can even work over the phone to make it easier for your family to get it done. One of her goals is to make the legal system accessible and affordable to everyday families. It is an investment, but in the long run it will save your family (particularly your children) money and time lost through probate.
Are you ready to take action? Let a family lawyer help you get with writing a will so you can protect both your children and your money for the future.
The Family Lawyer Series is underwritten by The Geller Law Group, which is licensed to practice in Maryland, DC, Virginia and North Carolina. Learn more at Geller Law Group. In exchange for the series, I am receiving discounted services to complete my own estate planning documents.
To schedule your free initial phone consult to create your family's legal documents, please contact The Geller Law Group via email at Office@TheGellerLawGroup.com.