Wouldn't you rather tend to a lovely bonsai tree than think about your own demise, and what happens after? Yeah, us too.
Not many people are thrilled by the idea of spending time thinking about death, especially their own, but that's exactly what you need to do at some point in your adult life.
Creating a last will and testament ensures that the important people in your life are taken care of, your money, investments and property are distributed how you want, and that those you leave behind won’t be burdened with unsettled matters in your life.
If getting started writing your will feels daunting, here’s a helpful list of things to consider that will prepare you for the next steps.
1. How to choose the executor of your will
An executor is the person who will take what’s written in your will and carry out (or execute) those instructions. Typically this is a person’s spouse or another trusted family member, but it doesn’t have to be.
You can name co-executors, who would need to come to a consensus before decisions are made. For example, you might name your husband and your lawyer as co-executors, so you’ll have someone familiar with the personal details of your life, and an objective professional to guide them. This also takes some of the extra stress off your loved ones, as they deal with the emotional impact of losing someone.
Generally, the qualities to look for in an executor are:
Solid judgment, especially when it comes to money
Understanding of your values and wishes
Good relationships with the beneficiaries you name in your will
Owns a copy of Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan (preferably on vinyl)
Okay, that last one is not important. But the rest definitely are.
2. Establishing a trust and choosing a trustee
If you have children under the age of minority, you’ll likely want to set up a trust for them in your will. A trust is established by the executor, and managed by a trustee. The executor and the trustee can be the same person, but you might choose different people depending on your situation.
The purpose of the trust is to hold the money you’d like to pass on to your children until they’re old enough to manage it themselves, and set rules about dispensing funds from the trust before it’s fully released to your children. For example, you might set aside a certain amount of your money to pay for your child’s post-secondary education, which the trustee can access.
3. Information and documents you’ll need to gather to prepare your will
Unless you’re a fastidious cataloguer of your possessions, investments, debts and other assets, gathering the details you’ll need to mention in your will is going to take some time.
Here’s a basic list of the information you’ll need to collect:
Assets - all your cash, investments, real estate, life insurance policies, and anything else intangible you own that has a dollar value.
Debts - credit cards, loans, mortgages, and any other money you owe.
Bills - rent, mortgage payments, utilities, subscriptions and memberships, and any other ongoing living expenses you pay for.
IDs and other documents - collect your birth certificates, marriage licenses, tax returns and any other significant financial or legal documents and make sure you make them accessible to your executor.
Big-ticket items - cars, houses, cottages, one-of-a-kind bronze busts of legendary San Diego anchorman Ron Burgundy - anything that’s got a lot of value should be documented.
All your other stuff - electronics, furniture, whatever else you own - if you want specific people to get specific things, you need to write that down.
4. Deciding who gets your stuff
Once you’ve got an inventory of everything you own, make a basic list of who you’d like to give certain things to if you die.
Don’t forget to write down who gets anything not specifically mentioned in your will. Someone is going to have to deal with that shoebox full of mixtapes from high school boyfriends, and all those inexplicable extra parts left over from building your own modular, affordable Swedish furniture.
5. Guardians for children (and pets)
If you have kids under the age of majority, and their other parent either is incapable of caring for them, or doesn’t legally have custody, you’ll need to make it clear who will care for them if you die.
It’s best to think of some alternates, in case your first choice is incapable of taking on the task. Here’s what you’ll need to decide with regard to your children:
Who is your primary choice to care for them?
Who is your alternate, in case your primary choice is unable?
You’ll also want to decide who cares for your pets, and choose an alternate for them as well.
Bonus thing: getting help from professionals
This article is by no means comprehensive, and the amount of work needed to get your will in good shape depends on the complexity of your life.
That said, there are few people out there whose affairs are so simple that they would be completely covered by a boilerplate will, or one generated by a questionnaire on an online service.
If you really want to have your will done properly, and return to taking deep breaths, gingerly clipping your bonsai trees and meticulously combing the sand in your zen garden, you need a lawyer on your side.
You’d also be wise to bring in a financial advisor, especially if you’re planning on setting up a trust. If properly invested, the inheritance passed on to your children through a trust could continue to pay dividends to them for a long time.