A lot of people, even many Christians, have not done the work to make a will. But if you and your wife both die without a will (“intestate”) while your children are young, a court of law will decide who raises your children, and this court-appointed guardian may not even be a Christian! Think of it. Providing spiritually for your young children by specifying a guardian is the most critical reason to make a will.
Creating a basic will is not an insurmountable task. You can do this, and you can and should take care of this now. Don’t procrastinate – there’s too much at stake! Keep your eye on the goal and lead your wife through this too, and in a week or two you’ll have this taken care of. Here’s help…
Step 1: Decide on the people
This is the first and hardest part: you and your wife need to agree with each other on the people you will ask to bear responsibilities in your wills. You need to talk to each other and to the people you’ll be appointing: guardian, trustee, and executor.
1.1. Your first and second choices for personal guardian for your children
The main reason you’re bothering to make this will is to name a guardian for your children.
The guardian needs to be someone you trust to raise your kids if you and your wife both die while the kids are young. You should consider family first: do you or your wife have a trusted married brother or sister who is in the Lord?
1.2. Your first and second choices for a trustee to manage your children’s inheritance
If the one you choose as personal guardian for your children is also able to handle the money, choose him as the trustee (also called “custodian” or “property guardian”) too; otherwise choose someone else as trustee. Consider that the personal guardian will potentially be working with this person over the course of several years.
1.3. Your first and second choices for executor
The executor will be responsible for settling the financial affairs of the estate. This person doesn’t need to be a legal or financial expert (he can work with a lawyer if necessary to work out the details), but he needs to be someone trustworthy.
“The quality most desirable in an executor is perseverance in dealing with bills.”
—American Bar Association Guide to Wills and Estates Chapter 10, page 4.
Step 2: Don’t get hung up on unnecessary blockers
2.1. Leave sentimental things for another day
You can do lots of things in a will. For instance,
- You can leave specific bequests to specific people.
- You can forgive debts.
- You can leave a personal testimony.
These things have value, but right now they all have one thing in common: they are paralyzing you from creating a will. You are about to not provide a Christian guardian for your children because of these extras. You can add these things some other year, but you can’t add them now. You need to have a basic will and these things are standing in your way. Cut them!
2.2. Just use a pot trust
There are multiple ways to leave an inheritance to your children, but most of them involve splitting up the inheritance such that each child gets exactly a certain portion of it. This is impractical for the children’s guardian – while you have young children you want the guardian to have the flexibility to spend more on one child than another as needs come up, just like you do. This is exactly what a family pot trust does. So don’t get hung up on the UGMA/UTMA approach or the separate-trusts-for-each-kid approach – just use a pot trust.
2.3. Understand that you and your wife will have separate wills
You and your wife will be making separate wills, not one shared will. This may surprise you, but it is how it is done and there are good reasons for it that I can’t get into here. Don’t get hung up on it.
Everywhere you name your wife in your will (e.g. executor, primary beneficiary of everything (the “residual estate”)), she will name you in hers. The wills will be mirror images of each other. You’ll both put the same guardians, trustees, and alternates in your wills, to avoid trouble if you both should die at around the same time. (See, you didn’t want to think about this. But don’t quit now!)
2.4. Don’t get bogged down with conditional gifts
Don’t try to tackle conditional gifts, this time around at least. It takes much more care than a simple will. Says Nolo.com,
There are also a few legal limitations on what you can do in a will. For example, you cannot leave a gift that is contingent on the marriage, divorce, or change of religion of a recipient. You can, however, try to influence lesser matters. For example, you could leave money “to Jeremy, if and when he goes to college.” Making such conditional gifts, however, usually opens a can of worms — who will enforce the will’s conditions, and for how long? –Nolo.com, What a Will Won’t Do
2.5. Don’t get hung up on whether to use a lawyer or what software to use
Sure, you could use a lawyer to help you write up your will, but it’s been several years and you haven’t done it. Nolo.com is a reputable source of law-for-the-people works, and they have an Online Will program or you can get their Quicken Willmaker Plus software, either of which is under $40. Do it.
2.6. Don’t delay because of uncomfortable conversations about death
You need to communicate now with those you give responsibilities to in your will, to avoid surprises and difficulties later. Since typically your wife will be your executor, the main task here is to talk to a couple of your relatives or friends about being appointed guardian or alternate guardian of your children in case of you and your wife’s death. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Quit yourselves like men and do it!
2.7. Don’t give up because you don’t have alternates
You ought to have alternates of everything (guardian, trustee, executor). If you simply aren’t able to come up with one in one of these categories right now, make a will without an alternate in whatever category you’re having trouble. You don’t want to die without a will and leave your children with a potentially unbelieving guardian just because you couldn’t think of an alternate executor to put in your will, do you?
Step 3: Create your will
You’re simply going to leave everything (the entire “residual estate”) to your wife; and if she doesn’t survive you, to your children in a family pot trust. You’ll name a guardian, a trustee, an executor, and alternates of all these. That’s about it.
3.1. Produce the document
The software will walk you through a questionnaire asking all the questions above. It will be easy since you’ve already done the legwork. Your temptation will be to be distracted by all the bells and whistles you can put into a will, and quit. Don’t do it!
3.2. Look over it
There will be a bunch of legalese about what authority is given to the executor, guardian, and trustee, but at least make sure all your kids are listed and that the will doesn’t explicitly disinherit kids you may have in the future.
3.3. Get it witnessed
A will has to be printed out and signed by you and two or three witnesses to be valid. Sign it in front of two or three witnesses who do not inherit under the will. Then keep the signed copy in a safe place. The willmaking software will give more specific details. Don’t get hung up on creating a “self-proving affadavit”. It’s not necessary, and you can study up on that later, once you have a will.
Step 4: Get on with life
Once you’ve spent all this effort planning for your untimely demise, it may seem like there’s nothing left to do but go ahead and die. One last word of advice for you: Stop being so melodramatic and get on with life!