Should I write my own will?

A surprising reason to not write your own will: It might be valid.

In order to properly write a will and testament, you need to understand something about the legal nature of the property you are disposing of. Let's take an example. Let's say that you marry, and you take out a life insurance policy naming your spouse as 100% beneficiary. Then you divorce and remarry, and you now want your entire estate to go to your new spouse. In your will you leave your entire estate to spouse #2. You even say, in your will, "I direct the entire proceeds of all life insurance to go to spouse #2"-- but you don't change the form at the insurance company.

In all likelihood, your second spouse would not get a dime of the life insurance. That's because you have left conflicting instructions. You have filled out a legal document -- a will -- instructing that your life insurance proceeds go to your new spouse. However, you have also left a legally-binding instruction to your insurance company, to pay the life insurance proceeds to spouse #1. Most of the time, the law provides that what you told the insurance company supersedes what's in your will, even though you are divorced from spouse #1.

The same thing is true if you set up a bank account, brokerage account, or CD / certificate of deposit. Whenever you open a bank account, the banker asks you to name a person or institution to receive the funds in your account, in the event of your death (the "death beneficiary" or "POD", "payable on death" beneficiary). Let's say that when you opened the account, you designated your sister as the death beneficiary of your bank account. Later, you marry, and now you want everything to go to your new spouse, not to your sister. In your will, you state that your entire estate, including all bank accounts, are to be given to your spouse--but you don't go to the bank and change the death beneficiary form. In most jurisdictions, when you die, your spouse won't get a dime of that money in the bank, your sister will get it all; and that's because what you write on the death beneficiary form at the bank, supersedes what you put in your will.

So this gets complicated. There are similar issues with your real estate, your vehicles, your retirement accounts -- and you need proper legal advice to make sure that everything happens the way you want it to.

This is over and above the really important provisions in your will: Who will raise your minor children if you die? You have to do this right, the first time.

My advice: Don't write your own will. It might be a perfectly valid and legally binding will -- that won't be within driving distance of doing what you want it to. I suggest that you demonstrate your love for your family by hiring a skilled attorney, and getting it done right.

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