If you’d asked me before 2020 whether I’d ever thought about my will, I would’ve given you a resounding “no.” Why would I? I don’t own a home, yet alone multiple other assets. And being 27, I figured I had a few more decades until I had to start planning in earnest for my eventual death.
But then came the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that’s claimed the lives of a quarter of a million Americans, including an outsized number of people my age. On top of that, ongoing police brutality and climate-related disasters rage on, destroying individual lives and collective hopes. That combination of circumstances brings with it a host of anxieties—will there be enough beds in the ICU for the next wave? Will coastal communities make it through the next hurricane?—most of which we can’t immediately solve. It makes sense, then, that teachers and other essential workers are writing their wills. It’s one of the few things we can control and one of the few ways we can add structure to the messy unknowabilities of our own demise.
For instance, attorney Thomas Simeone hadn’t thought about his will until this year. Though he’s been practicing law for almost 30 years, he specializes in trial work, and he’d never really thought about his own estate planning. Then his high school best friend died from prostate cancer during the pandemic.
“It really brought home my mortality,” says Simeone. “It was a reminder of the fact that there will be an end at some point, and a better approach to life, knowing that there’s an end, is to be prepared, accept it, and get your affairs in order.”
I talked to Stacey Romberg, a Seattle attorney specializing in estate planning and probate, to better understand the process of estate planning, who should do it, and how to get started.
What is a will?
A last will and testament, otherwise known as a will, is a legal document that specifies what will happen to your property after you die and names an executor, or a person you trust who will fulfill your intentions as laid out in your will.
Making one is part of the process of estate planning, or determining how your assets will be managed and distributed in the case of your death or incapacitation. Your estate isn’t just any real estate you own—it also includes things like your car, your checking and savings accounts, your investments, and your personal possessions, including furniture and jewelry. Planning for how those things will be bequeathed or managed includes planning for taxes and court costs.
Other parts of that process can include setting up trusts to protect or distribute your assets, determining your funeral arrangements, and naming a power of attorney.
Why does having a will matter?
For Romberg, it comes down to one word: legacy.
“Estate planning is really for other people. It’s hard to lose somebody, and when you’re going through an unbelievable amount of grief and anguish, you don’t want to add on top a nightmare in terms of the estate,” she says. “The more you can take that stress off of people that you love, that’s part of your legacy and how people remember you.”
If you die without an estate plan, your assets will be distributed according to the probate laws of your state. In some states, that means assets are split between your surviving spouse and children, if applicable. If you’d like to control who gets what and when and not let everything default to the court system, a will is vital.
Do you need a will if you don’t have many assets?
It depends. If you have no opinion on how your things will be handed down after your death, you don’t have a complicated investment portfolio to distribute, and you’re comfortable with the courts determining what happens after your death, a will might not matter too much. But the peace of mind it brings is hard to put a price on. “I’ve written wills on a pro-bono basis for people who had about $500. It made a huge difference to them because they wanted to say who got their things,” says Romberg.
It’s also important to remember that estate planning isn’t just about your assets—it’s also about your beneficiaries. Do you have children? Who would you want to be their guardian in the case of their death? What about pets?
“People overlook their pets,” says Romberg. “It’s important to make some sort of plan in advance for your pets about who will take care of them and make sure that there are funds available for that.”
Keep in mind, too, that estate planning includes planning for what you want to happen if you’re incapacitated. If you end up in a coma after an accident without having had a power of attorney already established, it might be complicated (and expensive) for your parents or other family members to set up a guardianship in order to take care of you.
Does debt follow you after death?
Are you worried about your family inheriting your debt upon your death? You might not need to be. When your estate is settled, any outstanding debts will be paid before your assets can be transferred to your heirs. But if your debts exceed your assets, that doesn’t mean your family will be on the hook for the difference.
“Debt doesn’t go away the second you pass, but it also doesn’t necessarily fall to other people unless they have secured that debt,” explains Romberg. Two examples: If someone buys their first house at 28 after getting a loan cosigned by their parents and passes away shortly thereafter, their parents would be responsible for the loan because they cosigned. However, if someone has $15,000 of credit card debt on their personal Visa but only has $10,000 worth of assets (including bank accounts and personal possessions), the lender will write off the difference.
What does the process of writing a will look like?
First, find an attorney experienced in estate planning. Make sure they’re in your state of residence, since laws can change significantly between states. Steer clear of online do-it-yourself options, since they can end up making things more complicated in the end. “Online will products are like an adult version of Mad Libs,” says Romberg. “You fill in the blanks and it spits out a thing, but it’s not legal advice by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve had probates that have been way more expensive than they needed to be because people had these wills that were invalid or made no sense.”
Once you’ve found your attorney, they’ll probably ask you to fill out a comprehensive estate planning form with information about who your family is and what your assets look like.
From there, you’ll work with your attorney to draft legal documents, including a will, a power of attorney for financial issues, a power of attorney for healthcare, and a healthcare directive for if you are incapacitated and unable to make healthcare decisions or are in a terminal condition with no chance of recovery.
You’ll work through questions about your values and what that means for what you want to do with your assets. For example, Romberg says that many people include charitable giving distributions in their wills. “It’s part of your legacy and part of explaining to people what your values are about,” she says.
You’ll then have conversations with your loved ones, particularly whomever you chose to serve as your personal representative or attorney in fact. “You want them to have an understanding of what you would want. What are your philosophies for health care? For end of life? You do need to convey those philosophies to the people who would serve for you if a tragedy happens,” says Romberg.
How much will it cost?
Budget at least $1,000 to $1,500, says Romberg, who suggests getting quotes from several different attorneys along with a full understanding of whether they bill a flat rate or by the hour.
If that price seems daunting, there are options. “Here in Washington, there’s a clinic that first responders can go to and have estate planning done for them at no charge,” says Romberg. Look for estate planning or will clinics near you. Many will ask you to show that your income is below a certain level and, if it is, offer you pro bono legal resources. “There’s also low-bono,” says Romberg, “which is a recent concept. It’s not perfectly free, but it’s at a substantially discounted rate.” She suggests checking with your state and local bar associations for a list of those resources. Try starting with this list of resources by state.