I Talked To An Expert About Making My Will And Learned These 13 Things

·9 min read

Outside of the Addams family, most of us probably don't *love* thinking about what will happen when we die. But it's still a part of life, and no matter your age, it's important to think about it and plan for it.

ABC / Via giphy.com

Personally, I'm pushing 36, and while I don't have kids or significant assets like a house or car, I've been wondering if I should put a plan in place just in case. That way if something happened to me, my will would make handling all the logistics a little easier on my loved ones. And not gonna lie, as a very obsessed cat lady, it would make me weirdly happy to know that my cat-sons will always be taken care of.

So to find answers to all of my burning questions about wills, I reached out to Ebony Ruffin, a life insurance expert and the founder and managing member of Ruffin Consulting Services.

Portrait of Ebony Ruffin
Ebony Ruffin

1.In the past, I thought that you didn't really need a will until you have kids, reach a certain age, or build up a level of wealth, but Ebony Ruffin says that's not the case. "If you are living, you need a will and life insurance," she explains. "Just that simple."

NBC / Via giphy.com

"Often in life, people will talk themselves out of both due to misconceptions of cost, worthiness to have either, or just lack of understanding. A will and life insurance are necessary components to living a responsible life."

FYI, a will is a legal document that outlines your wishes for how your stuff gets divided up after you die, names guardians for any minor children, and may also include details about your desired funeral arrangements. And life insurance is a policy that pays out an agreed-upon amount at the time of your death, which can really come in handy if you leave behind any debts or for covering funeral costs.

2.And you don't have to hire a fancy lawyer to make your will. If your situation is pretty straightforward, it's OK to write it yourself.

Person signing a document with a lawyer present

Ruffin says, "The key to deciding if you should write your own will or hire a professional depends on the complexity of your assets, beneficiaries and types of beneficiaries, budget, and comprehension of taking on such a task on your own."

BTW, a "beneficiary" is the person you're leaving something to in your will.

Peopleimages / Getty Images

3.Not sure if you should DIY? Ruffin suggests, "It is a good exercise to start with writing your wishes in detail, signing, and having the appropriate witnesses sign as well."

CBC / Via giphy.com

"Then continue to do research to determine if there are pro bono services available or if you should proceed with an online service or estate planning attorney."

According to Investopedia, it typically costs between $300 and $1,000 to have a lawyer draft your will. On the other hand, you can make a will using a guided service like Legalzoom starting at $89, or if you feel confident you can write your own in Google Docs or even jot it down by hand for free. Just make sure you get the right number of witnesses to sign it when you're done.

4.Speaking of witnesses, you generally need two people to witness and sign your will.

Couple going over their will with a lawyer

However, the things you need to do to make your will legit vary state to state, so check up on what's required in your area before you get started.

Wilpunt / Getty Images

5.Ready for the most surprising thing I learned? Ruffin says that "preparing to create your will can actually be a fun process."

HBO / Via giphy.com

Wait, what??? She explains, "Think of it this way: You are taking inventory on your life and all that you have accomplished and deciding how you want your hard-earned assets to be managed or cared for after you die. The process doesn't have to be daunting or sad but more of a confident decision that you are proactively in control of your financial planning and generational wealth." When you look at it that way, it actually doesn't seem so bad after all.

6.Whether you write your own will or hire a pro, you'll want to gather all your personal info and make a list of everything that will need to be resolved after you die.

Person sitting at home and making a list in a notebook

Ruffin says that your list should include:

• List of assets that you solely own

• List of your debts

• Executor

• Witnesses

• Your signature

• Guardians [for any minor children]

• Pets

Damircudic / Getty Images

7.Including any debts you may have in your will makes it easier for your executor to handle your estate.

Person writing down credit card information

"You may be thinking, Why should I list debts in a will?" says Ruffin. "Well, all debt does not magically disappear after you die, and your estate could be responsible." This means that money in your accounts can be used to pay any outstanding debts when you die. The laws vary somewhat from state to state, but generally nobody else will become responsible for your debts after death unless they already cosigned on them or it was a joint account. But a big exception to this is if you are married. If so, you should check your state's laws to see if your spouse could end up with your personal debts after death (and vice versa).

Boonchai Wedmakawand / Getty Images

8.Being the executor of a will can be a big task, so be thoughtful and have a talk with the person you want to choose before you write them into your will.

CBS / Via giphy.com

"The executor of the will has one of the most important responsibilities of the will. The executor, according to the terms of the will, must distribute assets to beneficiaries and satisfy debts," says Ruffin. When you're thinking about who to pick, Ruffin suggests someone close to you either through friends or family who's responsible and trustworthy. And since being an executor can be a pretty time-consuming responsibility, it's a good idea to have a conversation with the person who you choose to make sure they're up for the job.

But you might want to have a back-up executor too. "Wills are often created and forgotten. It can be easy to have named an older responsible friend or family member to be the executor and perhaps years later the older executor has passed away. This is where a successor executor that is younger than the executor can be beneficial to carrying out the wishes of the will." If you don't have a backup in mind right now, that's OK. You can also make changes later on in life.

9.If you have kids under 18, you'll need to name a guardian for each of them.

Young couple walking with their toddler son

If a guardian is named for one child but not for another, there's no guarantee that the courts in your state will decide to keep the siblings together. So if you feel strongly about keeping your kids together, be very clear in your will about these wishes. And since being a guardian is such a huge responsibility, you should also have a good long talk with whoever you'd like to choose for this role.

Igor Alecsander / Getty Images

10.If you want to leave pet care instructions or set aside cash for their kibble, take note that legally your pets are property, which means they can't *directly* inherit.

ABC / Via giphy.com

Ruffin says, "Naming a piece of property as beneficiary to property can cause confusion when executing a will. It is important to properly plan for the care of your pet after your death. There are several ways this can be done through a pet trust and [by] including specific care instructions for your pet in the will. A will typically will include a pet clause to help easily provide instructions for the care of your pet." So I can't leave my vet bill savings account to my cats directly, but at the very least I can write a plan for their care, just in case.

11.And if there's a charitable organization you feel strongly about, you might consider leaving something to them too.

Volunteers working at a food bank

"As the world trends toward purpose-driven living, you are finding more individuals naming charities/nonprofit organizations as beneficiaries in life insurance policies and including a bequest in a will," Ruffin says. This could look like leaving a sum of cash or a percentage of your assets, or you might bequeath other items like your car — it all depends on what kinds of donations the organization accepts.

Sdi Productions / Getty Images

12.You'll probably need to update your will at some point, like if you have a child, buy a house, or need to appoint a new executor.

IFC / Via giphy.com

Before you start updating, Ruffin says it's a good idea to check your state's laws to make sure you update your will properly. And if you're unsure, seeing a lawyer can be really helpful. When it comes to making the updates, Ruffin says there are three main ways that people add to or change their wills. "First, you can create an entirely new will to replace the old will. The key step is to ensure the old will is revoked and no longer valid and the new will is properly signed, witnessed, and fully executed."

"The second way is known as a codicil. A codicil is defined as an addition or supplement that explains, modifies, or revokes a will or part of one. To properly use a codicil to update a will, seek the help of an estate-planning attorney."

"A third option to updating a will is most seen for handwritten wills, which is called an amendment. The existing will can be updated by hand but must be signed, and the witnesses of the original will must be the same witnesses for the amendment. To ensure your will fully represents your wishes, try to review your will annually for any necessary changes."

13.Finally, if you die without a will, then it will be up to probate courts to decide how to divide up your belongings among family members based on intestacy laws, which vary state to state.

Judge holding a gavel

As Ruffin explains, "The probate court makes the decisions. But is that what you really want? Probate court applies intestacy laws when determining who will give away your assets and who will receive your assets. And listen closely to this piece: Without a will nothing happens to your assets until probate court decides. Surely this is not how you want to leave your assets to be handled amongst your loved ones. Do your family a favor and get a will."

Boonchai Wedmakawand / Getty Images

Have you made a will before, or are you currently in the process of putting one together? Tell us your most helpful tips in the comments!

And for more stories about life and money, check out the rest of our personal finance posts.