Preparing a last will and testament is high on the priority list for estate planning, but often gets postponed because many people find it hard to plan for the time after they are deceased or they just don’t know how to get started. But, it’s an important step, and if you don’t leave a will, you can put your loved ones in a difficult position. Wrestling for control of certain assets, waiting through lengthy court delays, and perhaps paying a larger tax than necessary are just some challenges they may encounter. I’ve gathered the answers to frequently asked questions I get from our clients to help you get started with a few specific pointers to write or update a will in the state of New Jersey.
What is a will?
A will (last will and testament) is a legal document that specifies how your property, called your estate, is distributed after your death. Wills allow you to name an executor, designate a guardian for your children if they are minors, and name a trusted person to care for property being left to those children, and even provide for pets.
What is the difference between a will and a living will?
The living will is a document that expresses your wishes in the event you experience an incapacitating illness or injury. The document lets doctors know whether you want your life to be artificially prolonged. Often, a living will is combined with a health care proxy, designating someone to make health care decisions for you. Together, this is called an advance health care directive. Many people choose to prepare a living will and health care proxy, when they write their last will and testament.
Do you need a lawyer to write a will?
You do not need a lawyer to write a will, but many people choose to use an attorney to ensure that they have addressed all legal aspects. If your estate is simple, and if you have no children, you may prefer a do-it-yourself will. If you want a higher level of expertise, consult a professional.
How much does it cost to write a will?
You can find do-it-yourself wills on the Internet. Web-based legal document services generally charge under $100 for a will.
Attorneys typically bill by the hour. It can cost up to a thousand dollars or more for a will developed by an attorney; however the document will be more thorough and customized than a web-based will. Attorneys can suggest ways for you to divide your estate so that you can save on taxes and other costs in your will, ultimately saving money down the road.
What is the process for finalizing a will?
In New Jersey, the will must be in writing. You must sign your own will, witnessed by two individuals over 18 (You must be at least age 18 as well.) Then, the witnesses must sign the document.
If you wish to go the extra step, you can bring your two witnesses to a notary and do the signing there. Notarized wills are not required, but they do help speed the process, since a probate court doesn’t have to track down the two witnesses.
You can choose to register your will with the state of New Jersey for a small fee, but whether or not you register has no effect on the validity of the will.
Your will is actually not filed until you are deceased. At that point, it becomes a matter of public record. Until then, it is considered a private document and may be kept at home, in a safe deposit box, at your lawyer’s office and/or with a trusted family member.
When should you update a will?
You should update your will when significant changes occur in your life. Changes in marital status, having children, or if an heir or your executor dies are reasons to update a will. Wills also need to be updated if you move to a new state, which may be governed by slightly different regulations.
There are no restrictions to updating a will; you can do it whenever you like. The process to update requires that you write an amendment document, known as a codicil. The codicil states any changes to the main will. It must be witnessed and dated just like the main will, and should be kept together with it.
What happens if you don’t have a last will and testament?
Without a will, you die “intestate,” which means you have no say in your transfer of wealth. If this is the case, the court will attempt to distribute your property, starting with the next closest relative and moving on to more distant ones. If no family members can be found, the state will take ownership of your assets.
Tips for Writing or Updating a Will
Following are tips for writing your initial will and things to consider when you are updating an existing will. This checklist will be helpful in gathering the information to take to an attorney if you seek professional assistance.
- Identify yourself. Use your full legal name, social security number, date of birth, and current address so there is no confusion with someone with a similar name.
- Include a declaration. State that you are of legal age, that you are of sound mental health, and that this document represents your wishes and supersedes all other wills and codicils.
- List all family members to be covered by the will. Identify family members by full name, birth date and relationship to you. Don’t use nicknames in the document. Refer to family members by full name always so there is no confusion.
- Appoint an Executor. Talk to the person you want to name as your executor first to ensure they are agreeable to performing this role. Include the executor’s first and last name. Also name a backup executor. Alternately, you can name a trusted individual who will hire a paid professional to be executor when the need arises.
- Identify and bequeath your assets. Name the beneficiaries and what each will receive. If you are dividing an estate, it is better to use percentages rather than dollar amounts. Make sure the percentages add up to 100 percent.
- Provide for minor children. Appoint the person who will be responsible for their physical care. Set up a trust fund to be administered on your children’s behalf.
- Write your will as if you might die tomorrow. This is a practical step that takes into account your current assets, not your projected ones. You can change your will as things around you change.
- Seek professional financial counsel. If you are likely to pay an inheritance tax, talk to a financial professional. He or she may be able to advise you on changes that could mitigate the amount.
- Be prepared to meet with an attorney. If you plan on hiring a lawyer, write down everything that you want included in your will before your meeting. You pay your attorney by the hour, and being prepared will help keep costs down.
- Do not write on the will after it is signed. Any additions will render the will null and void. Changes may be made by preparing a codicil.
- Consider a section on social media. A social media will specifies what you want to happen to your social media accounts when you pass away. You can appoint a separate person as an online executor, who can close email addresses, social media profiles and blogs. That person should have a separate list of your accounts and passwords, not contained in the will as passwords often change.
There are many online resources that provide links to sample wills and will templates. A quick online search will generate lots of models. Keep in mind that these are samples only, and that your individual situation may vary. If you’re unsure, it’s always best to consult with a professional.
If you’d like to speak with someone about estate planning, Lakeland Bank Financial Advisors are available to offer one-on-one counseling. For more information or to set up an appointment, click here.
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