Will Preparation Checklist (Everything You Need To Know)
Making a Will can be a daunting task. After all, you’re deciding what will happen with everything and everyone you care about after you die! Countless questions swirl through your mind about the type of information you have to gather and all the questions you have to ask yourself.
Take a deep breath; It doesn’t have to be too overwhelming. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know to make a legally binding Will (including a handy Will preparation checklist).
What information is needed to prepare a Will?
Before you make any decisions about how to distribute your real estate or who will raise your kids, make sure you have the following basic information.
1. Basic information about your loved ones
Let’s start with an easy one. What are the full names and contact information of your family members, including your spouse, parents, children, grandchildren, siblings, nieces, nephews, and anyone else you might name in your Will?
If you plan to include any close friends in your Will, you’ll need their full names and contact information, too. We recommend including email addresses as part of the contact information since addresses can change more frequently.
You'll also need the dates of birth of any children you have. Knowing the age of your kids is important for a couple of reasons:
They need guardians appointed if you pass away before they reach the age of majority.
They don’t get their inheritances until they reach the age of majority of other age specified in your Will. There are a couple of ways to handle a minor’s inheritance. One of the most common ways is to create a trust that they’ll have full access to when they’re old enough.
2. A general sense of your assets
A common estate planning myth is that you have to account for every single thing you own in your Will.
The truth is, you only need enough information to get a general sense of the value of your assets. As long as you know the basic size of the pie, you can easily divide it up to decide which portion of your estate goes to which beneficiary.
Let’s say you want to leave your spouse $500,000. If your estate is worth approximately $1,000,000, you’d leave half (50%) of your assets to them. But if your estate is worth approximately $5,000,000, you’d only leave them with one-tenth. The rest you can choose to divide between other family, friends, or charities.
3. A general sense of your debts
Debt is anything you owe to another person or institution. Debts include mortgages, car loans, line of credits, personal debts, and taxes.
When you die, one of the first things your loved ones have to do is clear your debts. This means, before anyone gets their inheritance, a part of your estate is used to pay your creditors.
Things can get ugly if you don’t set some money aside to pay your debts. For example, if you pass away with a mortgage or some huge credit card bills, your creditors could decide to come after your estate to get those numbers settled. In extreme cases, your loved ones could be forced to sell your house or other valuable belongings to pay off your debts.
The good news is that, as with assets, you don’t have to count your debts down to the penny. Just land somewhere in the ballpark so you know approximately how much money to set aside.
What questions should you ask before writing a Will?
Making a Will means making a lot of big decisions for you and your loved ones. Before you sit down and get to writing, there are a handful of questions you should ask yourself first.
1. Who do you trust to care for your minor children?
For parents of little ones, naming a guardian might be the most important thing you put in your Will.
A guardian raises your kids if you and your spouse both die before they become adults.
A suitable guardian should have enough time, money, and stability to raise your little ones. They should also be healthy and young enough to raise kids. You should also choose someone who shares your values. For example, will you agree with them on things like schooling, religion, and parenting style? (Hint: The answer to all these questions should be yes.)
Location is another factor to consider. If you choose a guardian who lives far from you, will your kids be ok moving away from the community they're used to?
2. Who should be your executor?
An executor plays a big role in your Will: They carry out your specific instructions. An executor’s duties may include:
Closing your bank accounts
Paying your taxes and debts
Helping sell any real estate property
Pooling all your assets together and distributing them according to your wishes
Dealing with any legal problems that arise
Communicating with your heirs on how the process is going
The best executor is someone who you not only trust with your wishes, but someone with the practical, legal, and financial know-how to wrap up your affairs.
3. Do you want to leave any specific gifts to people?
Before you divide the bulk of your assets, you can choose to leave specific things–like a watch or a car–to certain people. These gifts are taken off-the-top of your estate before the rest of your assets are distributed.
4. How do you want to distribute your assets?
Now we get to the meat of your Will.
After you document which gifts you want to give, you pool the rest of your assets together to split among your beneficiaries. You divide your assets by splitting the pool into portions—kinda like slicing a cake!
For example, if you have a spouse and two kids, you might choose to give each person a third of your estate. In this case, you would have three equal portions. One portion would go to your spouse, and one portion would go to each child. But maybe you want your spouse to get half of your estate with the remainder split among your kids. In this scenario, your partner gets half the cake and each child gets a quarter-sized slice.
5. Do you want to give any money to charity?
A Will is a great place to make a difference! In your Will, you have the option to leave some money to specific charities and causes close to your heart—known as planned giving.
Charitable donations in your Will come off-to-top of your estate as well. This means it's taken out of the pool of assets that make up your estate before the rest is distributed to your beneficiaries.
6. Who do you want to leave your digital assets to?
Your digital estate includes any digital assets, like your Facebook account, Dropbox files, and even your email address! Decide who gets the passwords for these assets after you die, and how you want them handled.
You can (and should) name a digital executor in your Will. They are just like a regular executor, except they’re only responsible for handling your digital assets.
In her podcast, Sharon Hartung, Author of Your Digital Undertaker, offers a checklist of digital and non-digital assets to consider when making your Will.
7. Have you been married more than once? Do you have children from multiple marriages?
When you come from multiple marriages or a blended family, you’ll likely want to balance the needs of both spouses and families, which can be a difficult task.
If you’ve had more than one marriage, you can set up a spousal trust to ensure your dependents from all marriages are taken care of. A spousal trust also protects your estate by making sure your money and assets don’t end up in the wrong hands, like those of future kids of your former spouse or your former spouse’s new partner.
Blended families and multiple marriages can make estate planning tricky. The same goes if you’ve been through a divorce or are separated. If this is the case, the best thing to do is find a good tax and estate planning lawyer to help navigate your particular situation.
8. When can minors access their inheritance?
The default law in every province and territory is for minors to get their inheritance when they reach the age of majority, which is either 18 or 19, depending on where you live.
If you think that’s a bit early, you’re not alone. Many parents feel the same! After all, how prepared would 18-year-old You have been to handle a big influx of money?
A Will lets you state how old you want your kids to be when they get their inheritance if it’s different from provincial law. This way, your kids only get access to the money you left them when you think they’ll be mature enough to handle it.
9. If any of your heirs die, how do you want to distribute their share of your estate?
If one of your heirs die before you, there are two common choices for you to choose from:
You can assign their share of your assets to their kids; or
You can divide their share among your other heirs.
If you don't have a Will in place, the distribution of assets to your next of kin will follow provincial law.
10. Do you have a plan for the worst-case scenario?
A Will’s common tragedy clause plans for the unimaginable: If everyone listed in your Will dies at the same time.
Though it’s exceedingly unlikely to happen, it’s better to have a plan just in case. Would you want to leave everything to charity? Would you want a scholarship fund set up in your family name? Although uncomfortable and grim, it’s an important worst-case scenario to think about when drafting your Will.
11. How are you going to make your Will?
Going to a lawyer’s office and shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars used to be the only way you could write a Will. However, most people just need a simple Will, and for them, lawyers are no longer necessary.
The landscape of estate planning law isn’t what it was twenty years ago. There are DIY Will kits sold at Staples and online solutions, like Epilogue, that can help you make a Will in as little as twenty minutes—no attorney fees required.
That said, DIY and online solutions aren’t for everyone. Complicated situations like the ones below warrant legal advice:
If you have a blended family
If you’re in the middle of a divorce
If you own all or part of a business
If you have dependents with special needs
If you are in one of these situations, you should speak to an estate planning attorney to learn more about your options. Going to a lawyer’s office and shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars used to be the only way you could write a Will. However, most people just need a simple Will, and for them, lawyers are no longer necessary.
Ok, pause. We know that was a lot to take in. Here is a checklist that summarizes all the important points we just mentioned, feel free to print it out and use it to help you prepare to make your Will.
Download a copy of the Will Preparation Checklist.
What does NOT go in a Will
Not everything belongs in a legal Will. Here are some things that you may not have to worry about including.
Life insurance policies:
Your life insurance policy may already name one or more designated beneficiaries. When you die, your insurance payout automatically goes to the beneficiaries designated in the policy—without any direction from your Will.
Pension plan policies:
As with life insurance policies, pension plan policies also typically already have beneficiaries named.
Certain jointly owned property:
If you are a joint tenant of any asset (like real estate property, or a bank account) your co-owner automatically gets 100% of the asset when you die. This is called the right of survivorship.
Gifts for pets:
Pets can’t legally own anything! If you want to leave things or money to your pet, leave them to the person you named in your Will to take care of them.
Funeral and burial wishes:
Wills can take a long time to find after someone dies—and funeral arrangements can’t wait. Don’t put your funeral and burial wishes in your Will. Instead, write it down on a separate document and let your family and friends know where the document is and talk to them about your specific wishes.
Preparing to write a Will requires a lot of thought, and is by no means easy. But once you’re finished with this checklist, you’re well on your way to having a legally binding Will and protecting yourself and the ones you love!