Ushering a newborn baby into the world pushes thoughts of one’s own mortality into the background. Yet writing a will now is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Learn how to get started!
You and your spouse happily return from the hospital carrying your beautiful new bundle. You’re looking forward to spending your first days at home marveling at your baby. As time goes by, your days quickly blur into a blissful pattern of naps, midnight feedings, and hours spent enjoying the miraculous little person sharing your life. During this new life chapter, few first-time parents want to think about writing a will.
After ushering a baby into the world, it is difficult to think about one’s own mortality. But taking the time to write a will now is one of the most important things you can do for your child. Losing a parent at any age is difficult, and making sure your baby is cared for financially, emotionally, and physically will alleviate anxiety for you and your partner—and prevent undue stress for your child and extended family should a trauma indeed occur.
Choosing a Guardian, Trustee, and Executor
The first thing you’ll need to think about is a guardian for your child. For many families, this can be as simple as choosing the baby’s godmother and/or godfather. Other families choose one of the parent’s siblings. Remember that the person or couple that you pick will be taking on the lifelong commitment of caring for your child. The law center at www.nolo.com suggests asking yourself the following questions when considering a guardian:
- Do you have confidence in the individual(s)?
- Is your choice able to handle the physical requirements of being guardian?
- Does he/she have the time?
- If he/she has a family, are their kids close to the age of your child?
- Can you provide enough money to raise the child—and if not, can your prospective guardian cover the costs?
- After you’ve made the decision, choose an alternate guardian to include in your will. He or she will take care of your child in the event that your primary choice is unable to do the job.
When first beginning a will, Mike Palermo, attorney and certified financial planner suggests, “Focus should be on the people chosen as guardian(s) and/or trustee(s)—not only in terms of parenting skills, but also managing money. These two roles can be separated.”
Many parents follow this route and select one person to care for their child (a guardian) and another to watch the checkbook (a trustee). This is a wise choice for any family. “Thought should be given to writing guidelines for the guardian(s) and/or trustee(s) to follow, so they can make the same kinds of decisions that the parents would make. But it all starts with choosing the right people,” Palermo adds. His book, Crash Course on Wills & Trusts provides additional information and will be published through Barnes & Noble this September.
After picking a guardian and trustee, you’ll need to name an executor: someone to carry out your will and complete the necessary paperwork after your death. For your estate to transfer successfully, these three people will need to work together. Think about how your choices for guardian, trustee, and executor will interact in your absence. To help things move smoothly, you may consider including a letter with your will outlining how you’d like your child raised and educated, how you want your funeral to be presented, and so on.
Remember, a will isn’t just for dictating who should inherit your assets or care for your children. There are many other things a will can be used for, such as making contributions to charity or donating organs, as well as specifying funeral arrangements. You can also outline your preferences for life support by creating a separate form called a living will.
Estimating Your Worth
After considering your child’s guardian, and your estate’s trustee and executor, you and your spouse will need to calculate your joint worth. Estimate your assets by adding the worth of your material property (home, furniture, car, etc.) to your savings and retirement accounts, then subtract your debt.
Though it may seem more time effective to create a single joint will, it is better to make separate legal wills for each parent. In the event that something happens to you and not your spouse, this allows the surviving parent more room to adapt to changing circumstances. When outlining separate wills, each spouse should name the other as sole beneficiary of any remaining assets as well as guardian for any surviving children.
If you have a life insurance policy, 401k, or IRA account, be aware that sometimes the beneficiary forms accompanying these documents overrule wills. The funds in these accounts will be distributed to whomever you name—regardless of whom you specify in your will. You’ll need to double check the names on these accounts and make changes to match the names with those you dictate in your will.
If you don’t have many assets, sizable savings, or any property, and you’re merely looking for a way to legally appoint a guardian, trustee, and/or executor, doing your own will is an economical choice.
“If there is truly no money and no unusual planning called for,” says Palermo, “then many young parents would not go wrong using self-help software from www.nolo.com.” Investing in a kit with pre-made forms and/or software will provide you with most of the paperwork you need to construct a basic will. Additional websites such as www.legal-kits.net, www.legalkitstore.com, www.uslegalforms.com, www.legalzoom.com, www.willsofamerica.com, Making-a-legal-will.com, DoYourOwnWill.com, www.legacywriter.com, and www.buildawill.com all offer kits priced from as low as $10 and up to about $100. Some of these sites, such as uslegalforms.com, even offer preparation services at a low additional cost. And advanced sites, such as legalzoom.com and legacywriter.com walk you through an in-depth questionnaire process to ensure your will is accurate and best suited to your needs.
Enlisting a Professional
For more complicated estate planning, it is wise to enlist the help of a certified legal attorney to assist in your estate planning. For a smart start, begin with a basic will from one of the websites above to educate yourself and get the process rolling. “Some clients use software programs just to learn a little and get something on paper before consulting an attorney,” says Palermo. “This is a fine idea.”
When choosing a lawyer, ask co-workers, family, and friends for referrals. Some schools and universities have online bulletin boards with recommended services—a great place to look for an estate planner. Palermo suggests, “Don’t do business with somebody who won’t or can’t answer your questions and explain everything.” He adds, “Be aware that some attorneys see ‘wills’ as just a commodity and don’t do much estate planning. They probably won’t be able to spot individual family issues and/or opportunities, if any exist.”
There are three main forms of passing along assets to your child. In each instance, hiring an attorney is a good idea. One of the most common choices for distribution of inheritance is establishing a trust for your child. A trust allows you to parcel out money to your child a little bit at a time, or all of it at a certain age. “…If there is a life insurance policy and/or retirement account, there could be substantial funds that would have to be managed for the children’s future, even [if] the parents are cash-poor right now,” Palermo points out. “This situation definitely calls for a trust.”
A trust can also set up guidelines for distributing funds for education, home-buying, what to do in the event of marital or substance abuse problems, and so on.
You can also pass along property and money to your child through something called property guardianship. In this situation, you name a person to handle your child’s inheritance until he or she turns 18. This financial guardian will need to fill out paperwork outlining your assets as well as file annual reports explaining how your funds are being handled.
A custodial account, governed by the Uniform Transfers to Minor Act, is a wise choice for transferring property to your child if the financial trustee you’ve chosen has a solid history of good financial investments. In this case, the custodian is recognized by most financial institutions immediately—this helps the job of taking care of your child’s finances much easier. If you choose this path, the courts will have no oversight over custodial accounts. You banker or stockbroker can set up this type of an account for you in just minutes.
The best time to beginning writing a will is now. Although you may have plenty of life in you, accidents can and do happen. Whether you choose to write a will with the help of an online resource or kit, or if you hire a lawyer, begin researching and planning today. Should the worst happen, a will can help your family and children suffer far less by providing a tangible and concrete outline of your wishes.
The National Association of Financial and Estate Planners (www.nafep.com) is a resource for addressing many financial planning questions.
The American College of Trust and Estate Council (www.actec.org) is a searchable database of local estate planners near you.