Parents' guide to creating a will

Every mother and father needs a will, but many lack one

Last updated: January 2013

If you're an expecting or brand-new parent and don't have a will, it's crucial to make one. That's because just like life and disability insurance, a will can offer protection to your dependents if something happens to you.

A well-written will allows your estate to be distributed legally and efficiently, costing your beneficiaries the least money and heartache. A will also serves the critical function of naming your child's guardian in the event that you and your child's other parent die.

You and your spouse should have wills. If you are part of an unmarried couple with a child, having wills is all the more important in ensuring that your estate is distributed the way you would want it to be.

In addition to a will, same-sex couples who are rearing children should complete a second-parent adoption, a legal process in which the partner of the legal or biological parent adopts the child, giving both parties the same rights. (Learn more here about estate planning for same-sex couples.)

Learn more about other end-of-life documents such as living trusts, living wills and health-care proxies, and what to do when a loved one dies.

How to create a will

Consider a lawyer. You’re better off with an attorney than a software program.

You can buy will-writing software starting around $40 and write your own will, or you can hire a lawyer to do it (about a few hundred dollars for a relatively simple estate).

Much like tax software (see Taxes for parents), will-preparation products guide you through an interview to draw out your intentions regarding, say, how you want your property distributed and who you want as executor of your estate. In our most recent review of will-prep software, we found them to be better than nothing, but some products had flaws, such as out-of-date or incomplete information. But a software-generated will is better than no will at all.

You're better off with an attorney than any software program. If you want to save money on lawyer fees, you can use will-preparation software to get your paperwork together ahead of time, including inventory lists and instructions your beneficiaries and executors will need in your absence. Then call an attorney. Or you can even ask an attorney to review a will you've generated through software.

An estate-planning attorney can draw up a will, trust, and other end-of-life documents. You can find one in your area on the website of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. Don't hesitate to ask a lawyer for an estimate, or to shop around, because legal fees can vary widely from firm to firm.

If your estate is large and complex, a lawyer can explain other options, including various forms of trusts. You can also hire a certified financial planner who specializes in estate issues (search for one on the website of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors). Learn more about estate planning.

Update your will after a second child is born.

Keep your will and beneficiaries updated

Your will provides for current kids, but you can add specific language to cover children that come along later. If your life changes in some major way, such as a divorce, your lawyer should take another look at your will to be sure that it covers your current circumstances.

The person you name as your beneficiary on life-insurance policies and investment accounts such as 401(k) plans will inherit those assets no matter what your will or living trust says. So remember to review and update documents related to those accounts every few years or after a marriage, divorce, death of a loved one, or birth or adoption of a child. If you neglect to do so, your 401(k) could end up in the hands of an ex-spouse.

The importance of naming a guardian

Being a guardian can be a huge responsibility.

A will is crucial even if you don't have a lot of money or property to pass along because it's where you designate a guardian for your child. If you die without a will naming a guardian, a court will appoint one, and he or she could be the last person you would ever have chosen.

The guardian you pick may be a relative or friend. You may want to name an alternate guardian, too, just in case your first choice is unable to take on the job.

Choosing a guardian is not easy for some. Mary from New Orleans, a mother of three, says she and her husband have been planning to create a will for years. "Part of the problem is that we have no idea who would be guardians for the kids if anything happened to us," she said. One mother of two from Eastchester, N.Y., says she and her husband don't have a will simply because they can't agree on a guardian.

But a serious medical experience prompted Carolina, a mother of two young children, to make a will "so we are ready in case our kids need to be without us," she says.

Your will may also give the guardian authority to manage whatever money you leave your child, until the child reaches the age of majority—18 years, in most states. If your estate is large or money management isn't one of your guardian's strong points, you may want to entrust a more finance-savvy person, or a financial institution such as a bank, with that authority.

Whatever you decide, don't forget to sound out any prospective guardians before naming them in your will. Being a guardian can be a huge, long-lasting responsibility. In other words, it's a lot like being a parent.

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