According to the unknown people who decide these things, September is “Make a Will” month. With the leaves turning brown and the days soon to get colder, this month is probably a good one to associate with our own inevitable mortality.
So we’re going to spend the next few weeks discussing the uncomfortable topic of “death”, and how the demise of you or someone you love may affect have a material effect on you or someone you love.
We’ll play along with the powers-that-be by addressing the subject of wills.
Do you need a will?
The simple answer to that question is “probably”, especially if you have any assets such as savings accounts, retirement plans, and/or a home.
If you die without a will, generally the state law and courts determine who gets your assets. That result may not agree with your current wishes, and your family, beneficiaries, and loved ones may spend a considerable amount of money on legal fees arguing about what you really wanted, but didn’t bother to note in advance.
How much does a will cost?
In Wisconsin, one can create a hand-written will that may be perfectly legal, as long as it is witnessed and signed as such by two disinterested parties.
But a simple no-cost piece of paper will can often create more estate problems than it solves, especially if you have any wrinkles in your situation and wishes.
At a minimum, consider a do-it-yourself online service like LegalZoom.com or Nolo.com. The cost may be less than a couple hundred dollars for a simple will, and not much more if you need to add additional documents or address non-traditional estate planning issues.
Hire an attorney
As rule of thumb, the more money, complexity, and people involved in your life, the more likely it is that you need to contact a real, live human attorney to assist you in your estate planning.
The attorney’s job is to ask you how you would like things to go if you are not around (or around but not able) to handle your affairs and assets.
Assuming your wishes are legal and feasible, she will then create the documents and procedures to ensure that your objectives are met.
She will also help you determine if such tools as living wills, powers of attorney, guardians for minor children, and advanced directives are necessary for you.
The cost of this service usually runs from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, but can be more if you have, say, a small business that you own, or a “nontraditional” family situation (which is becoming the norm).
What if I already have a will?
But the longer it has been since your will was created, the more likely it will be that your life has changed enough to make it necessary to update the document, or start over.
Such events could include getting divorced or the death of an immediate family member. Your children might have been minors at the time, but now may be grown and married, with children whom you may (or may not) want to include in your bequests.
The most likely reason you need to review your estate planning is that you are getting closer to old age and death, and therefore may need to add documents that weren’t as urgent a few decades ago.
Finding an attorney
You can check with friends, coworkers, and family members to see if they have a lawyer they can recommend. Or talk to your financial planner, accountant, or banker.
Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation, after which you should ask the lawyer for an estimate of the cost to assist you, and a guess as to how long it will take to complete the process.
Just try to take good care of yourself until your estate planning is completed.