It’s the question we usually ask our parents late one night while sitting around the kitchen table. Or we ask our siblings when they become parents for the first time.
“Do you have a will?”
Of course, if you’re facing an illness, coming up on retirement age, or have a partner or children, you should have a will.
But even if you’re young and feel invincible, you should probably have a will, tool. Life can come at you fast. So can death.
Before you go online and print a will from the same website where you got ordained to preside over weddings, check out this primer of all the estate planning-type documents you might want — and their true costs.
What Is a Will, Anyway?
This short list will orient you with some of the terms you’ll see bandied about by estate lawyers, websites, and likely your family and friends, too.
This document designates one or more executors who will settle your affairs after your death. It also lists your wishes for your assets and property, and names guardians for your children.
Probate court validates and approves wills so the executor of a will can move forward with managing the estate of the deceased person.
Also known as an advance directive, it lists your preferences for health care if you’re unable to convey those wishes.
A trust is an arrangement that gives a second party (the trustee) the right to manage your assets or property for the benefit of a third party (your beneficiary). .
A revocable trust, or living trust, lets you retain control of your assets listed in your trust and make changes to the trust during your lifetime. When you die, the assets are passed on outside of probate court. An irrevocable trust can’t be changed once it’s finalized.
Power of Attorney
This document allows a designated person to make financial or health decisions for you if you’re unable to do so. Unless you revoke the document, power of attorney typically expires when you die.
An estate plan can include any number of the documents above, based on your needs.
Should You Have a Will or a Trust?
You might want to consider getting a will and a trust.
Your need for a trust depends on the state you live in and how difficult probate is, according to Kevin Ruth, the former head of wealth planning and personal trust at Fidelity Investments and since 2019 the founder of Give-Get, a financial literacy program for high school students.
When you die, the executor of your will must go to circuit court and file your will, making it a public document.
“Almost all states require you [to] include a listing of assets with your will, laying on the table all your assets and letting everyone know who gets what,” he said. “The benefit of a trust instead of just having a will is privacy.”
If you want that information to be private to your beneficiaries, set up a trust. Then, when the will is filed in court, it will simply say it covers everything listed in the private trust.
“You should always have a will,” Ruth said. “But if you have a trust, all the will says is that everything goes into the trust. This is typically called a pour-over will.”
Without a trust, probate is unavoidable. “It can take a regular person a year to get through probate,” estate attorney Gale Allison said. And time, as we all know, is money.
“People think you have to have a lot of dough to get a revocable trust,” Allison said. “People think they’re not worth enough.” But the costs of setting up a trust now (more on that later) may be worth it to prevent expenses for your loved ones when they settle your estate later.
Why You Also Need Power of Attorney
An estate plan isn’t just about having a trust or will to guide what happens when you die. It often also contains power of attorney for health and finance.
“It [power of attorney] controls everything the trust doesn’t,” Allison said. And if it’s durable — as all powers of attorney should be — she advised, “it’s still effective when you are no longer in your right mind.”
Naming someone to take control of your accounts if you become incompetent may feel scary, but Allison says the reality is that few of us will die suddenly. For more of us, there’s a long illness or an accident with a period of uncertainty that follows.
“Two-thirds of us will have a long slide into the abyss,” Allison said. “If you confront that and you don’t have the proper things in place, there are problems. It’s hard to make money last. It’s hard to have a family not fall into complete dysfunction.”
Generally, regular power of attorney expires if you become incapacitated, so that the person you’ve entrusted to manage your bank accounts or other assets can’t make decisions willy-nilly without your approval. But durable power of attorney remains valid even if you get hurt or sick and can’t make decisions for yourself.
So, What Does a Will Really Cost?
People often make a big mistake when they try to set up a will, according to Allison. They call offices up and ask, “How much for a will?”
“That’s like calling a car dealership and asking how much for a car,” Allison said. “The answer is nobody will know until you sit down and tell them what you want.”
An estate plan, which might include a will and trust, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, and health care directive, can cost “anywhere from the high hundreds into the thousands,” Ruth said, with his best estimate being about $2,500. “If you just went in and got a will, that would cost a couple hundred,” he said.
Digital services like Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom have simplified the process online, and can offer wills and other estate-planning documents that match your state regulations in packages for under $500. A la carte documents, like a simple will or power of attorney, can cost between $25 and $50 online.
“If you don’t have children or a lot of assets, you can use those services to get very simple wills done with a few questions and have a legal document,” Ruth said. If you have more complex situations in your life, like children, a second marriage or other situations, Ruth said to work with a pro.
Allison advises working with an attorney on an estate plan. “The stuff you own and put into your estate plan should be reviewed and titled or executed with the help of a knowledgeable estate attorney to keep you from painting just one picture of your possible demise,” she said. “You might as well not make any effort as to plan only addressing that one scenario.”
How to Write a Will if You’re Low on Cash
Local nonprofits and libraries often host no-obligation seminars where you can learn about estate-planning options. Your state or local bar association may offer free short consultations with member attorneys or seminars to answer common questions about wills and trusts.
If you’re looking for a basic option with a little guidance, Amy Pickard of Good to Go!, an advance planning service, recommends the Five Wishes living will from Aging with Dignity. It’s a legally binding document in 42 states and Washington, D.C., and costs just $5 to purchase, fill out online and print. Some states also offer free power of attorney documents.
“Most states let you do your own will,” Allison said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, but it’s better than nothing.”
Lisa Rowan is a former senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.