No one likes thinking about their mortality. No matter what our age, death is a challenging subject, and while we might be able to come to peace with the reality that eventually it will end for all of us, that doesn’t mean that we want to take active steps to prepare for it.
Perhaps this is why two separate studies found that “at least 45 per cent” of people haven’t yet written a will, and “nearly half” of people die without one. Creating a will is literally an acknowledgement that your time on earth is finite and that at some point everything you’ve worked on will pass to someone else.
And yet, it is absolutely critical that you put aside the discomfort and create a will. When you do pass, having the will can ensure that there are no arguments or disputes among your family, and that your life’s assets and precious possessions end up with the people you wanted to pass them on to.
What is a will?
Because such a large percentage of people don’t get wills done, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about just what a will is. It’s actually quite a simple legal document, and its role is to explain what should happen to your assets in the event of your passing.
“Asset” is a broad term, but it basically refers to just about everything: your house, your money, your investments, those intangible things that you have ownership over, and your personal belongings.
When you complete a will, your lawyer will also then know who your executor is; this is the person that will be responsible for administering your estate after you pass, and ensuring that the assets are distributed correctly to the right people.
It’s important to keep the will up-to-date, and you are allowed to draft new wills to replace existing ones as circumstances change. A common example of this is divorce and remarriage. Naturally you’ll want to ensure that your estate goes to your new spouse. Another example is the unfortunate event when someone named in your will passes before you do. In that event, you’ll need a new will to re-distribute those assets.
Another common example of needing a new will is when you’ve acquired new assets and wish to specify who those should go to.
It is only the last will that you draft before you pass away – your last will and testament – that is legally enforceable. People cannot challenge being removed from a will or the distribution of assets to them, based on an old document. As soon as you sign a new will, it is the only document that will be consider legally valid.
How to make a will
Actually making a will is incredibly easy. There are “legal will kits” that are available that provide an easy template to follow. But you don’t even need one of those to write a legal will. A simple, three-step process is all you need to draft up your will.
1) Determine what your assets are. Do a thorough audit of everything you own, and note it down on paper.
2) Allocate those assets to the people that you want to have them. It is also possible to give assets to organisations – for example, providing a percentage of your assets to a favourite charity is something a lot of people do.
3) Write the will. There are a couple of things to keep in mind here, but it’s pretty straightforward:
a. Make sure you identify the document as your last will and testament, and that it includes your full name and address, states that you’re over 18 years old and mentally competent, and notes that you’ve written this will without being under duress.
b. Select an executor. This is the person that will be responsible for handling your affairs.
c. Identify the beneficiaries and what you a bequeathing them. Be specific here. Rather than say “50 per cent to my spouse, 25 per cent to my child, 25 per cent to my charity” actually list out what assets each receives.
d. Sign the will and make sure that two eligible people witness the signing. These two people also need to sign the document, must be over the age of 18 and cannot be on the will as a beneficiary.
If there is anything in doubt you should also consult with your lawyer to make sure the language is clear and cannot be disputed.
If you don’t have a will and pass away you are considered to have died “intestate.” If that happens, then a legislated formula determines how your assets are distributed. The government has in place a legal list of priorities for who gets the assets and, worse, if there are no clear close relatives found, the state will simply take control of it all. That means that friends, (legally) distant family members that you are close to, and charities or other organisations that you support will miss out on the financial support. And, if two people occupy the same “tier” of importance, then it’s very easy for an inheritance dispute to break out.
Writing a will is unpleasant, but not time consuming, and it will give you peace of mind that those that you leave behind will be looked after in your absence. For this reason, you should push aside the discomfort and get one done.