If you’re like me, when you think about a “last will and testament,” you imagine a TV drama in which someone’s inheritance hinges on an outlandish scheme to deceive a relative. Or maybe you remember a news headline about a dispute over a famous person’s estate, or even have some level of personal experience.
Why you need a will, and where to go to get help making one.
Whatever your level of wills knowledge, you probably know less than you should about this very complicated, very nuanced topic. I spoke with two local trusts and estates lawyers—Frank Campbell, founder and partner at Sims & Campbell, and Jonathan Pasterick, from Hillman, Brown & Darrow—about what to ask yourself, and what to consider while answering, when it comes to wills.
What is a will?
Simply put, a will provides direction for the disposition of your assets. Or in layman’s terms, a will states who gets your possessions after you die.
More important than just who gets access to your home, money or stuff, a will allows you to designate a person or entity to take control of your affairs and administer your estate in accordance with the terms of the will.
Most important, for parents anyway, a will also allows you to designate a “guardian” who will care for, and likely also manage the inheritance of, your children if you die before they become legal adults.
Who should have a will?
According to both Campbell and Pasterick, virtually anyone over 18.
“Even if you think you don’t have much ‘stuff’ or that your family situation is ‘simple,’ having a will can save your loved ones considerable headache in managing your affairs after you die,” Pasterick says.
“For starters, if you have a spouse and children and you die in Maryland without a will, your estate is split between your spouse and children rather than going entirely to your spouse,” Pasterick says. And your spouse, he continues, “might not like having to ask her kids for money.”
Second, if you don’t nominate a personal representative to manage your estate, “your family may have to agree on one or the court might choose one. And lastly, if you have minor children and don’t set up a trust for their benefit and appoint a trustee, the court may have to get involved. So yes, if you’re reading this, you should probably have a will.”
Can you make your will yourself?
Yes, a quick Google search will show you that there are plenty of websites, from LegalZoom.com to FreeWill.com, and plenty of books, for example “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wills and Estates” and “Wills & Trusts Kit for Dummies,” out there. However…
“While there are some circumstances where an individual does not need any advice or the benefit of an attorney’s experience, I’ve found it very rare that I have nothing to add or that my knowledge of the estate planning process is not helpful to a client in creating their planning documents,” Campbell says. “Without talking to an attorney, individuals will be depending on what they hear or read in other resources, and some of that information may be incorrect or misleading.”
As Pasterick echoes: “There was an old judge on the Eastern Shore who would always bring the defendants up to the trial area before every court proceeding and give them his standard spiel—something to the effect of, ‘If you have a leak, you hire a plumber. If your car breaks down, you hire a mechanic. And if you have a legal issue, you hire a lawyer. That’s generally true when it comes to wills, and you generally get what you pay for if you go another route.”
Hiring a professional
Both Pasterick and Campbell suggest the biggest benefit that you get from hiring a professional is the assurance that he or she knows what questions to ask—and can help you answer them.
“An attorney will explore your family circumstances, finances, and expectations then apply his or her experience in order to create a will or other estate planning documents that are designed to accomplish your specific goals in light of your personal circumstances and relevant laws,” says Campbell. “He or she will help you make informed decisions and create a well thought-out, clearly-drafted plan that prevents conflict and preserves family harmony—plus be available as a resource for your family after your death.”
“Good estate attorneys ask all of the questions that you probably wouldn’t think of,” says Pasterick. “We help clients think through what they want, not so much as a family counselor but as someone who has seen the negative consequences of certain decisions and can provide anecdotal advice on how to resolve them.
He adds, “Beyond taking care of the logistics of your estate, the process provides tremendous peace of mind, assuring that you’ll protect your family from potential headaches and provide for them as you wish.”