Listen, I get it. Who wants to be confronted with their own mortality when they’re bringing a new life into the world? Talking about writing a will when you’re in the bloom of new parenthood, young and healthy, seems silly, right? Well, apart from the fact that the sheer act of procreation means you’ve already created your replacement, you honestly probably won’t need it any time soon. But like car insurance or a gravy boat, it’s just something you need to have. Don’t worry — it’s not as scary as you think.
I spoke with several attorneys who specifically deal with estate planning to find out all about the process, from why parents need one to what should be included, and I was fairly surprised. I thought I knew a little. After all, my husband and I had our first will drawn up years ago. But it turns out there is a lot more that goes into it than I was aware of, and a lot more included than I even paid attention to: for instance, the fact that with every new job you get, if say, your 401K changes or you end up with a different life insurance policy, you need to amend your will. (Pause for me emailing my own attorney.) And, unless you’re rolling in that cash money and have a ton of assets, it doesn’t need to be expensive. In fact, there are a ton of great online resources to get it drawn up from the comfort of your own home.
Why Do Parents Need A Will?
Maria Galante, trusts and estates attorney at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, tells Romper, “Often times, young families are under the false belief that they do not have any significant assets that would justify having a will, which is simply not the case. Once you have a child, you have to make additional provisions — not only from a financial perspective — to provide for your family in the event of your untimely death.” For instance, what if the unthinkable happens? “What if you and your spouse die together, who would be taking care of your child? Who would they live with?”
It just makes everything simpler, says Andrew Winters, co-founder and attorney at Cohen and Winters. He says that so much can get held up in court if things are left unattended, and that having a will “makes the whole process easier and smoother for everyone who is left to deal with your passing. A will minimizes the legal hassle for everyone involved.”
What Should Your Will Include?
It needs to be specific, but while it seems like there is a ton that should be addressed, it’s actually not that complex. The real trick is updating it regularly, and making sure it is filed correctly — those are the parts that we often forget about. (I know I did.) It’s also why it’s important to make sure you’re using an attorney or a service where an attorney will do the filing for you. You should also make sure that someone you know and trust knows that you filed your will, and where you store your hard copy. The same thing for any safe deposit box you might have — just don’t give away the key.
The first thing you need to think about is something I touched on earlier, notes attorney Laura French, Founder of The French Law Group. She tells Romper that parents need to name guardians for their child in the event parents die or are incapacitated. “Guardians are the people who will raise, care for, and nurture your child if you are unable to do so due to death or incapacity.” Think of it this way: do you want your kids raised by the aunt with the creepy homemade taxidermy collection, or the one who wins pancake eating contests? If you don’t write it down, the state will decide for you. “Also, if you have a special needs child, special provisions must be put in place to protect and provide for that child,” Galante adds.
You also need to determine who will care for your funds and assets. French says that to do this, you should “name trustees to care for your child’s inheritance in a way that is protected. Trustees are the people who will secure your child’s trust funds, invest and grow the assets, and ensure that your child’s financial future is secure.” This does not need to be the same person as the guardian. Who knows, maybe one aunt is really great with setting up a college fund and her bills are always paid automatically, but she’s not the best at raising children. The trustee should also be guided in how the funds will continue to be distributed after your children become adults. If there are significant assets, you need to speak with your financial advisor to determine how much can/should be accessed when, and how it is to be used.
French stresses that you should also ensure that your children “don’t make common, and often catastrophic, mistakes with their assets. For example, many parents list their children as secondary beneficiaries to accounts. This is a huge mistake which generally results in two consequences: the assets left to the child are subject to court intervention, and the child typically receives the assets at age 18.” (AGE 18! How dumb were you at 18?) “The better route is to appropriately plan for the assets to remain under a trustee’s control beyond age 18 so that your child is protected from third parties, greedy relatives, and their own uneducated judgment.”
And Galante strongly urges that every drop of your assets needs to be accounted for, and determine how those assets are divided providing that only one spouse passes away. She says that your will should “include a provision regarding your personal tangible property, digital devices, and accounts. It should provide who will inherit your assets — those in your name only, as Marital or Joint Assets are treated differently depending of the case. Usually it’s the surviving spouse, or if spouse dies before you, then your children.”
I know we’re all tempted to throw things in there like “I want them to be raised to love Harry Styles and go to church for all the major holidays,” but the lawyers agree that parental guidance is just that — guidance. Unless you’re setting aside funds for a specific school or you’re an evil old-school romance novel character who is forbidding your child to access their inheritance until they’re married, things like that are more of a suggestion, and hopefully, the person with whom you leave your child also loves Harry Styles.
How much does this all cost?
Depends. If you do it online, it could be as cheap as $90, but going to a lawyer, and getting one drawn for you — making sure that every i is dotted and t crossed — the fees go up with what you include. Galante says that “Some attorneys charge a flat fee for straight-forward estate planning: wills, health care proxies, and powers of attorney for married couples.” Those can range from $500 to $3500 depending on where you live. However, she notes that more detailed/specific planning, like “revocable trusts, special needs trusts for disabled children, etc. would be more expensive based on the complexity of issues.”
It’s not cheap, but like so much else that comes with having children, it’s worth it when you consider what it does. You want your children protected and provided for, and this is the one way you can make sure that happens if, heaven forbid, something happened to you.