Step by step, how I made my last will & testament.
A new friend recently told me about a serious health scare she had before we met. Things were touch-and-go for a while, and as she recovered in the hospital, she had plenty of time to think about her own mortality. It was hard to think about anything else, given how close she had come to meeting death head-on.
She didn’t have a will written before that, she told me. I could relate. I didn’t have one either.
Our reasons were similar: We were both unmarried with no children, so it didn’t feel so crucial to make sure that our possessions would go to specific loved ones. We weren’t rich, didn’t have lots of bank accounts and assets. We would write a will, of course, eventually, just needed to get around to it. But we were in our forties — obviously far, far too young to need to think about death. Until, that is, it stared one of us in the face.
For both of us, the truest reason we hadn’t gotten around to drawing up a will was that we were afraid. Writing down in black and white what would happen to our stuff after our deaths would be to acknowledge that we were going to die at all, and that was too heavy, too terrifying. Easier to just keep pretending it wasn’t going to happen.
“Finally deciding to draw up my will changed my entire outlook, though,” my friend told me. “A huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.” She wasn’t afraid of death any more, she said. She had faced it, contemplated it, and prepared for it.
I decided to learn from her example and draw up my own will.
After all, death is going to come whether I have a will or not, and it’s best to make things as easy for my loved ones as possible, even if I have to go through an uncomfortable process to get to that point. No more dragging my feet!
I made that vow to myself seven months ago, and as I write this now, I just got my will notarized today — which, all things considered, for a procrastinator who has no intention of actually dying any time in the next several decades, is not actually all that bad.
Step One: I Talk to a Lawyer
Adding to my total lack of excuses for not having a will before now is the fact that my sister is a lawyer. When she passed the bar exam five years ago, she began telling all of our family members that she would be happy to draw up a will for any of us quickly, painlessly, and at a discounted rate. She kept nudging me about it periodically, too, so I couldn’t use, “Oh yeah, I forgot,” as an excuse.
Not everybody is lucky enough to have a lawyer in the family, but even for those who don’t, a basic will is a fairly simple document, and it’s something you can create yourself with the help of some Googling if you want to avoid a lawyer’s fees. I very much appreciated working with someone who knew her way around the legalese, though, and you may agree that you’d rather have a lawyer’s assistance. Lawyers’ rates vary, but you should be able to have a not-too-complicated will drawn up with only a few hours of a lawyer’s time, paying no more than a few hundred dollars.
My sister walked me through the information I needed to provide by emailing me a list of questions. Here are a few examples of the questions I needed to answer:
— To what person/s or entity do you want any real estate you own at the time of your death to go? How is any real estate you own titled?
— To what person/s or entity do you want your money and personal property to go? Personal property includes items such as cars, furniture and furnishings, clothing, collections, and pets. (Yes, pets are viewed as property in the eyes of the law.) This can be split or divided up in any way you see fit, or all go to one place.
— Do you want to give any smaller or specific gifts of either money or specific personal property to a person or charity?
She offered me some facts to keep in mind, too — like the fact that minors under 18 can’t legally inherit, so anything I might want to leave specifically to my young niece would need to be held in trust until she turns 18.
Step Two: I Discuss the Fact That I Could Die Tomorrow
My next step was to sit down and answer all the questions. I’ll be honest, I had a couple of uncomfortable moments here; having to think and talk through these questions was the one part of the process I did find a little upsetting.
As I mentioned, I’m unmarried, but I’m not single; I’m in a long-term relationship and I live with my partner. This is one reason a will is really important for me, in fact, because he’s not legally connected to me, and if I died without a will, none of my property would go to him. The state would distribute my property to my closest relative, which means my parents, if they survive me, or my sister, if they don’t. If no immediate family survived me, the state would move on to my niece, or my cousins and other more distant relatives, finally giving up and keeping my assets if they couldn’t locate any surviving family.
I have lots of close family members, so I doubt the state would end up keeping my assets, but I also don’t want my partner to be skipped. At the same time, I didn’t want to leave him anything he wasn’t prepared to deal with. So, as I started working on the will one morning, I wandered out of my office to ask him a few hard questions.
“If I died tomorrow, would you want to keep Gus?” Gus is my dog, and he’s a central part of our little family. I wouldn’t want Gus to have to go live with someone else, but I also didn’t want to saddle my partner with pet care if he didn’t want to take on the responsibility and expense. We both love Gus and spend a lot of time with him, but he was mine before my partner moved in, and I’m still the one who buys his food and takes him for daily walks.
My partner looked horrified, but he remembered what I was working on. “Of course,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to lose him.”
That wasn’t a surprise, but it was a relief to have a plan in place. I’ve had dogs in my life since I took my first steps into the adult world, and I’ve never before laid out a specific plan for their care if something were to happen to me — but it’s always nagged at the back of my mind. Knowing that Gus is taken care of in the eyes of the law is comforting.
I went over a few other things with my partner. Our household furnishings are a mishmash of stuff that we both contributed when we moved in together: my kitchen table, his couch, my computer, his television. But it makes sense for it to stay with him if I die first. He’ll still need a kitchen table, after all. So that took care of the furnishings. We discussed the property we live in, and we made plans for that, too.
This was an emotional conversation for me, and my partner seemed uncomfortable talking about my death. I felt teary throughout the conversation. It was not easy. But it was important, and the discomfort didn’t last long for either one of us.
Step Three: I Burden My Sister With Hundreds of Cheap Paperbacks
I went back to the list of questions to try to finalize them all. Who should get my car? My books? The few family heirlooms I have?
I could have agonized over it all day, but ultimately I just forced myself to make decisions. My sister loves books as much as I do, so she can have them. I support a local charity that distributes clothing to recently-arrived refugees free of charge, so of course they should get my clothing. My parents have given me so much, from raising me to putting me through college to helping me make it through emergencies, that they deserve any money I might leave behind if they should survive me.
I have plenty of smaller possessions that I didn’t specifically mention in my will, and that’s okay. I specified that my partner and my family should work together to determine what keepsakes each person would want to remember me by, and anything that remains will either stay in the house or go to charity.
I emailed my sister with my answers to all the questions, and she sent me back a five-page document that was my completed will. I printed it out, and I will admit that it was disquieting to hold a piece of paper with “LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF LINNEA CHRISTINE CROWTHER” in bold type at the top. But that was the last uncomfortable moment I experienced in the process: I was almost done.
Step Four: I Get It All Over With And Breathe a Sigh of Relief
All that was left was to have my will notarized, which is not a requirement in every state — your lawyer should be able to tell you what needs to be done with signatures to ensure your will is legally binding. But having it notarized was easy. I took it to my township office, where there’s always a free notary public available during business hours. (If you don’t have access to a free notary public, the same services are offered for a small fee at many banks and mailing/shipping stores.) I presented my will and my photo ID. The notary rounded up a couple of her coworkers to serve as witnesses, we all signed it, and the notary stamped it to make it official.
All done. I had a legal will.
This was not a process that needed to take seven months to complete. That was just me avoiding doing it. If I hadn’t dragged my feet, I could have had the whole thing done within a matter of days.
Some estates are more complicated than mine, and some are simpler, but if you have a lawyer to help you through any of the confusing legal bits, the hardest part may well be dealing with the emotion and symbolism behind creating a will.
Facing my own mortality was not comfortable. Neither was discussing my death with my partner. I would rather have continued pretending I’m going to live forever. But I’m glad I drew up my will, and I’m especially glad that the experience is now in the past. It’s not something I have to dread anymore.
Unlike my friend who inspired me to get it done, my outlook on life and death hasn’t changed after making my will. I still don’t want to think about dying, and I’m still afraid of it. What the process of writing my will did for me, instead, was make me feel content that my family will have one less worry when I do die. They won’t have to agonize over what to do with my possessions, because I’ve now figured that out for them. In the midst of their grief, this small bit of organization should be a comfort.
If you haven’t drawn up your own will yet, and you’re feeling uncomfortable about addressing those big questions, I’m here to recommend that you rip off the band-aid and go for it. It may be upsetting, and it may not change your whole view of life, but you’ll be left with a satisfying feeling of having tied up a loose end. And hopefully the will you write won’t be needed for many, many years.