Smart ways to prepare a will

Preparing a will should be taken seriously, but it can be overwhelming since several problems can occur. There are five important things to keep in mind when preparing your will.

Smart ways to prepare a will

1. Avoid legal quarrels that could consume your assets

"It doesn't take much to set off a family feud," says Les Kotzer, an Ontario lawyer. But some simple estate planning upfront might save your beneficiaries a bundle in legal fees after you die.

  • Wills need to be as clear as possible to avoid disagreements that can escalate and end up costing big money in court.
  • Talk to your kids in advance about what you want to happen on your death. Don't make assumptions that one child is wealthier than the other based on appearances.
  • Talk to an accountant about ways to reduce probate fees and other taxes by setting up trusts, establishing joint accounts or giving money away before you die.

2. Read a will carefully before signing it

  • Wills are put together from form documents. In other words, your last will and testament is essentially a re-tweaked version of somebody else's last will and testament.
  • With all of that cutting and pasting going on, incorrect information can and does sneak into (or fall out of) the final printout. So look it over and don't be shy about chirping up if you see a problem.

3. Explore what a will won't cover

  • It's convenient to think that a good will takes care of everything, but it doesn't. Though many a will-maker or heir isn't aware of it, a will only arranges for the transfer of assets that aren't already spoken for in some other way.
  • In fact, a common estate-planning blunder is assuming that the will "trumps" previous arrangements. You can avoid a lot of spats and misunderstandings if you make an inventory of all the "out of probate" money or property you have—that is, assets that automatically go to somebody upon your death regardless of what the will says.

4. Give broad guidelines in a living will

  • The common advice to "be as specific as possible" when putting together any legal document isn't necessarily the best way to go with a living will. It's impossible to cover all eventualities or circumstances, so keep your instructions broad to avoid confusion.
  • It's better to instruct a decision maker to say, "arrange for the most appropriate care without creating a significant drain on the family finances." Your lawyer, of course, will help find the best language to express your thoughts.
  • In other words, leave your decision maker with some discretion. That will make it more likely—not less—that your true wishes will be carried out.

5. Your spouse may not be the best living-will decision maker

  • No matter what anybody might assume, your spouse (or another very emotionally close relative) is not necessarily the best person to carry out the instructions in your living will. The inevitably heightened emotions in a medical emergency or a pull-the-plug situation can obviously interfere with the one thing needed most at such a time—clear thinking.
  • That's not to say that your spouse is ineligible to be your decision maker. Many spouses fill the role just fine. But there's nothing automatic about it.
  • Choose the most qualified, responsible, loyal and clearheaded person, whether you're married to this person or not. But under no circumstances should you try to spare your spouse's feelings by keeping secret your selection of another person to carry out the directive in your living will. The decision maker should consult with your spouse, after all. Also, not discussing your decision with your spouse can lay the groundwork for chaos at the worst possible time.
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