You need will power to be sure your house is in order.
Nobody likes to think about wills or other legal documents that deal with what happens to your assets after your death. But unless you think about how your property will be transferred to your family or friends, and how financial decisions will be made if you’re not able to deal with them, you risk compounding the grief of your loved ones and beneficiaries.
WHY A WILL?
You might think a will is the last thing you need if you have very few assets to give away. But even if you’re single and struggling to get by that doesn’t mean you don’t need a will. If you have student loans, mortgage payments, or other debts that your parents have cosigned, making them the beneficiaries of your will allows them to use your assets to pay off what you owe.
While they would probably get ownership eventually, it could take more time without a will. And if you’ve started a family, you’ll definitely want to establish a will to provide for your children. In addition to leaving them your assets, you can use your will to designate a guardian in case something happens to both you and your spouse.
MAKING A WILL
There are three different routes you can take to make a will. They all work, and they’re all legal, but one may meet your needs better than the others. Using a lawyer who specializes in wills and estates is the safest way to go.
And if your estate includes any complicated investment holdings—including real estate—or if there’s the possibility that someone might challenge your will, it’s almost a necessity.
Using a guidebook or an online tutorial can help you write your own will for a fraction of the cost. If you do this, though, think seriously about having a lawyer review the document. Using a fill-in-the-blanks will is cheap and easy, though the form tends to be generic and pretty inflexible. But if you’ve got simple wishes for a simple estate—like leaving all of your assets to your spouse or parents—this type of will may be better than no will at all.
DURABLE POWERS OF ATTORNEY
As long as you have property or an income, you can benefit from granting a durable power of attorney for finances. You can use this document to designate someone as your attorney-in-fact, which ensures that your financial matters will be handled by someone you trust if you’re unable to take care of them yourself for any reason.
If your financial situation is pretty simple, you might not think you need that kind of backup. But if you’re incapacitated for an extended period of time, you’ll need someone to take care of your bills and medical paperwork at the very least. And then there are larger-scale concerns, like paying taxes and managing investments. If you don’t designate someone ahead of time to take care of these matters, the courts will have to do it for you, which can be expensive and potentially uncomfortable for the people involved.
You can create a durable power of attorney that goes into effect as soon as you sign it. Or, if you want it to take effect only if you’re incapacitated, you can create what’s called a springing durable power of attorney. It allows you to control your affairs until you’re unable to, at which point it springs into effect (hence the name). All you have to do to create a durable power of attorney is fill out a form and sign it in the presence of a notary public. Many banks and mailing centers offer notary public services for a very small fee. Some states require that you have witnesses present at the signing.
Some banks and financial services companies have their own durable power of attorney forms. It’s a good idea to see if your bank or brokerage firm requires you to sign these documents to ensure that transactions between the institution and your attorney-in-fact go smoothly. And if you want your attorney-in-fact to deal with any real estate you own, you’ll also have to put a copy of the document on file at your local land records office.
POWER OF WHAT?
You don’t have to be an attorney to be designated an attorney-in-fact. All the word attorney means in this context is someone authorized to act on someone else’s behalf.
If you’re married, it’s a good idea to give your spouse a durable power of attorney. If you’re incapacitated, he or she can use a joint checking account to pay bills, but may not be able sell property you own jointly, and certainly can’t do anything with investments, bank accounts, or other property that belongs solely to you.
In fact, it can be useful to have an attorney-in-fact if you’re out of the country or out of touch for some other reason and decisions have to be made or documents signed immediately.