Let’s be honest: Making a will is never a fun topic of conversation.
Nonetheless, it’s increasingly one of those all-important tasks you should knock off your things-to-do list – and do so now, rather than later.
For one thing, the sad truth is that news headlines are filled these days with stories about how COVID-19 is killing Americans of all ages.
As of this writing, more than 2 million people in the U.S. have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and more than 115,000 have died from COVID-19, with the disease having a disproportionate impact on African-Americans.
Various scientific models forecast more than 200,000 COVID deaths by October 2020.
And look, I’m not trying to scare you: I’d much rather just help you get some peace of mind about having your affairs in order and doing some proper estate planning.
If we’re honest: many of us will admit that we’ve been messing around on this front, procrastinating and putting off this task for far too long.
Most of us, of course, are crazy busy. And while you might be going hard on the job to shine in the workplace; working overtime to get that degree, or even that second degree; and maybe putting in the hard work of raising kids or looking after loved ones, the fact remains that many of us need to play catch up around estate planning.
- In 2019, Blacks were twice as likely than whites to say that they didn’t know how to get a will or living trust, research from Caring.com reveals
- In 2020, only 27% of Americans between the ages of 35 and 54, and 48% of those age 55 and older report having made a will or trust
- As of 2020, men are 34% more likely to have created a will than women
So it’s time we had some real talk about getting down to the business of estate planning, namely creating a last will and testament, or maybe even a trust.
If you’ve not yet handled this crucial task, here’s what experts say is the easiest and most cost effective ways to get it done, and some food for thought as you’re considering your options.
The Pros and Cons of an Online Will
Like most things these days, you can make a will online. But the question really is: should you create an online will versus having a will drawn up the traditional way – by using a lawyer?
Even those who aren’t fans of using online software and digital tools to create a will acknowledge that it’s typically the fastest, simplest way to get this chore done.
That’s because an online will can be generated from the safety and convenience of your home, usually in about 30 minutes, and without having to visit an attorney or an estate planner’s office.
An online will is also much cheaper than going the lawyer route. Paid online will creation services typically cost between $20 and $200. By contrast, depending on the state where you reside and the complexity of your financial situation, an attorney may charge you anywhere from $500 to $2,000 to prepare your will.
But the advantage of a lawyer, many say, is that you can get specific advice about your situation, as well as insights into issues you may not have considered – the kind of stuff that some online will services don’t take into account.
For example, what if you have a special needs child, a niece or older parent you’re caring for? Or what if there’s big drama in your family (girl, you know what I’m talking about!) or assets that you want to carefully distribute in specific ways without causing a ruckus upon your death?
In such instances, you may need specific guidance from an expert to do some more-in-depth estate planning around these topics. You may also be better served by having a trust instead of a will.
Still, proponents of online wills say: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by dismissing the practicality of making a web-based will.
One such advocate is Jenny Xia Spradling, co-founder and co-CEO of FreeWill, a unique online service that lets you draw up a basic will at no cost.
“There are people who need more complex wills than most online wills can offer,” Spradling says. “Online will-making providers, like FreeWill, need to admit this.”
“However, trusts and estate lawyers tell us that only around 10% of the U.S. population need a more complex will,” she adds. “That means that for 90% of people, an online will is an affordable, easy to use solution to their estate planning needs.”
“The future is thoughtful tech and excellent lawyers working together,” Spradling notes. “Technology provides accessibility and scale, and great lawyers should use their years of training and expertise to guide the more nuanced situations and get paid more accordingly.”
No matter what option you choose – an online versus a conventionally prepared will or some blended approach – it’s important to understand the drawbacks of a will.
While basic wills can be easy to create and update as needed online, in some cases online wills may be more prone to errors – which costs you in the long run if those mistakes have to be fixed by an attorney, or if your final wishes aren’t well executed.
Most significantly, all wills have to go through probate once you pass away. That means anyone’s prying eyes will be able to see your will if they go snooping through your local probate court. Plus, the probate process itself can take a while, which often results in sizable legal bills.
“Probate court can be expensive, and it can be longer for your beneficiaries to receive assets after you pass away, but that’s not always the case,” Spradling says. “It typically varies on a state-to-state basis, with California having the longest and most expensive probate process.”
Certified Financial Planner and estate planning attorney Shannon McNulty, who heads McNulty Law in New York City, agrees about the drawbacks of probate and having a will – which is why she favors trusts for those who need them.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Creating a Trust
According to McNulty, trusts are better for those with more assets and people who want to maintain privacy about their affairs.
Since a trust doesn’t go through the probate process, your wishes are more private. Additionally, “if other people are relying on you, it’s more important to do the trust, because they’ll able to get the money you leave behind faster,” McNulty notes.
McNulty says that even though it takes more work and money to set up a trust, over the long term having a trust “generally saves you money on the bank end of things” by avoiding what could be a protracted and more expensive probate court process.
Just know that creating a trust involves significant paperwork: You must “fund” the trust by transferring legal title of property you own to the trust. When this is done, the trust then technically owns the property, not you. You just manage the trust.
So establishing a trust requires actions like changing names on financial accounts, changing deeds to real estate, and changing titles to vehicles. As you add or get rid of assets over time, each transaction needs to go through the trust as well. Consequently, paying to get a trust set up can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000.
If you forgo making either a trust or a will for now, McNulty recommends that you at least take prudent steps to financially protect those you care about in other ways.
For example, she suggest updating your life insurance beneficiary designation to ensure that your life insurance proceeds pass to the person(s) you want outside of a will.
You can have bank accounts titled “payable on death” to go designated persons of your choosing.
And for married couples, McNulty says: “make sure assets are jointly owned if you want to avoid probate.”