Here’s What You Should Do For Your Family…Today

According to USA Today, 74% of Americans with minor children don’t have a will. Are you one of them?

I used to be. Until I realized what a mess it would make for my family. Of those surveyed, 39.5% are will-less because they “don’t have the time,” 26.2% think “it’s too expensive,” 15.9% “don’t like working with attorneys,” another 15% “don’t like facing death,” and 29.6% “never thought of it.”

These are weak excuses. Perhaps yours is better.

Still, it’s a big mistake to die without a will. Dying “intestate” (as this situation is called) puts your heirs in the miserable position of having to fight with the government about your estate. And it can sometimes cause very serious tax problems.

You don’t want that. And even though you don’t intend to die for quite some time, well … you just never know.

Do yourself a favor. Don’t let the sun go down this evening without taking steps to correct what could turn out to be a very big and bad mistake. Here’s what I suggest you do today:

1. Make an appointment with your lawyer — if you have one — to get your will written. If you don’t have an attorney, look in the Yellow Pages for one in your area.

2. Write a memo that identifies your most important wishes. This memo will make it quicker and easier for you to draft a good will with a lawyer and will help in case anything should happen between today and the time you draw up/revise your will.

For a good idea about how, roughly, to construct a will — or a letter that approximates one — you can find references at your local library. There is also much available on the Internet.

You shouldn’t have to pay a ton of money for a will — something between $100 and $1,500, depending on how complicated your finances are. There are plenty of “write-your-own-will” products out there. Lawyers don’t like them — at all. But when I’ve compared them with what I’ve paid big bucks for, I was surprised to discover that they are mostly pretty good. (Check out and

Whatever you do, don’t get suckered into paying a ton of money and buying all kinds of insurance from the attorney you choose.

The key things to consider:

* Who do you want to take care of your children if you and your spouse die? Hint: One person (or a couple) is best. Consider their finances as well as philosophical and psychological factors.

* Who do you want to inherit your assets? Try to be as specific as possible.

* If you have sole ownership of a business, what do you want to do with it? You’ll also need to identify an executor for your will. This is a person whose job it will be to make sure that what you want is done. It can be your attorney or someone else you trust to be able to act intelligently on your behalf. Consider also the tax impact of anything you decide. If, for example, you will your business to a child, that child may be forced to pay taxes on it — taxes he or she might not have unless they sell the business. You don’t want your business sold for pennies on the dollar merely to satisfy some IRS agent.

For today, just cover the basics in a memo. It will get you thinking. It won’t serve as a legal document, but it will at least indicate to someone you trust what your intentions are. Give yourself a month, at the most, to get your will written and signed. Then put it in a fireproof safe somewhere and give a copy to a trusted friend or relative.

Just before I sent this off to JS, my steady-at-the-tiller editor, I thought: “Should I be giving legal advice to my readers? I’m not a lawyer. Not even a paralegal. I have however, spent several hundred thousand dollars on lawyers. And I’ve watched a lot of TV movies about lawyers. Hmm.”

I decided to ask MT, the guy who handles all my personal and most of my corporate legal work. Here’s what he had to say:

“The highest rate of legal malpractice is in the practice of estate and trusts. In other words, even the lawyers get it wrong — very often! So, my advice to you is very simple: If you have an estate worth over $600,000, make sure you get a solid estate attorney who understands tax law like the back of his hand. If you don’t know one, is a good starting place.

“As for those do-it-yourself kits … well, they may (or may not) work for small estates, but I’d be darned careful. For example, some states require two witness signatures, others require one and a notary. And some states, like Virginia, give your spouse the ability to renounce your will if certain conditions are not met. In short, be careful … or you may be a frustrated ghost.”

OK. That’s from someone who knows. So get the memo written today and the will written by this time next month.