Why now is the time to write your will

Text size: aA aA aA
Your family will thank you for putting your wishes on paper. Here's how to get started.
Here's a shocker: Roughly two out of every three Americans don't have a will — including over half of those 55 and older, according to Caring.com's 2021 Wills and Estate Planning Study.Footnote 1 One possible reason: "People don't like to plan for their own mortality," says Jean Y. Kim, managing director and wealth strategist at Merrill.
A will is simply a legal document that ensures your assets are distributed in accordance with your wishes when you die. You may also want to consider implementing a larger scale estate plan (including a will) that also addresses incapacity planning.Estate plans are less about allocating who gets what and more about protecting your family — from discord, avoidable taxes and legal fees. Most important, creating your own estate plan gives you control. "If you don't have one, the state will decide how your estate is handled," Kim says.
"Whether you're nearing retirement or just starting a family, it's a good idea to put your wishes down in writing," she adds. A good place to start is by assessing your net worth with the Net Worth Estimator™. Then you'll want to consider your goals. "Think about how you want to pass on your legacy," she suggests. "An estate planning attorney can help you fine-tune your initial thoughts and make everything official by drafting the necessary documents." And bring your family into the conversation as well, to make sure they understand your wishes and how you'd like them carried out.
A grandfather, father and young daughter in the park. The father is holding his young daughter as they laugh.
An estate plan can help you avoid...
Legal fees
Depending on state law, probate, filing costs and attorney fees could erode your estate's value if you don't have a will.
Family conflict
Without a will in place, your heirs are left to vie for favorite heirlooms and possessions.
Emotional pain
Tracking down assets and records is a tremendous time commitment for your mourning family.
According to Kim, every estate plan should address these three things:

Your heirs — and their inheritance

Naming who inherits what from your estate is the first step. And while dividing up your financial assets is important, also think about whether you have any personal belongings that you'd like specific people to have. These may be heirlooms of sentimental value or a beloved collection. Don't forget that estate planning in a digital world means that you might have things like videos and photos on your personal computer or mobile phone that your family might like to have — so be sure to determine who will get access to your passwords.
You'll also have to consider the ways in which your assets are passed on, whether it's directly to your heirs or via a trust. Any assets you leave directly to heirs can be used or spent at their discretion, whenever they choose. A trust, on the other hand, allows you to set rules for how and when any assets you leave might be disbursed. This is particularly useful if you're leaving assets to minors or to someone who is not able to manage their own finances, perhaps because of a disability.
Another situation where a trust could help is if you've remarried later in life and are wondering about how to care for your current spouse while also leaving enough for children from an earlier relationship. Trusts can be drafted to be very flexible; for example, you may allow your current spouse to receive an income while protecting what's left for your children. (You can find more ideas for protecting your assets and those you love, by reading "Protect your assets with a trust" and "Revisit your estate plan.")
A will or an estate plan can always be updated as circumstances change, and it's far better to have a will that isn't quite perfect than to not have one at all.

Who will make sure your wishes are carried out?

The executor of your estate will act as a sort of administrator for everything you leave behind. "The executor will take inventory of your assets, pay any outstanding bills, settle your affairs, make sure your mandatory filings are done and pay any estate taxes that may be due," says Kim — so select someone you trust who would be good at those things. "People will often name a family member or a trusted friend," she adds, "but if you have complex assets or family dynamics, it makes sense to consider a corporate fiduciary to handle these matters."
If you have minor children, you'll also need to name a guardian or guardians — the person who would look after them if you and their other legal parent were both to die. Even though it's a remote possibility, you'll want to check with this person first, because while it is an extraordinary honor, it's a significant responsibility.

What happens if things change

Wills can become outdated quickly, so try to make sure yours spells out how you want to account for major life events like births, deaths, marriages and divorces. But whatever you do, don't let the complexity of thinking through multiple hypothetical events discourage you from making a will in the first place. A will or an estate plan can always be updated as circumstances change, and it's far better to have one that isn't quite perfect than to not have one at all. "This is one circumstance where 'good enough' is not so bad, because it's still much better than having nothing in place," says Kim. You'll want to take a look at your estate plan every few years anyway, to make sure it accurately reflects your wishes and the latest circumstances of your life.
For more tips on getting started, check out "What you need to know about your will."
Next steps

Footnote 1 "2021 Wills and Estate Planning Study," Caring.com, 2021, https://www.caring.com/caregivers/estate-planning/wills-survey/

Merrill, its affiliates, and financial advisors do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.