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Work & Money

Make These 10-Minute Moves if You Haven’t Written a Will

You procrastinated. Now there’s a pandemic and it may feel tough to take this step. Here are simple ways loved ones can protect one another.

From the editors: The Black community is coping with historic challenges relating to social justice, health and the economy. We’re all in this together. During this turbulent time, Sisters From AARP is prioritizing new and existing content that supports our readers’ mental, physical and economic safety and well-being, including this story. Feel free to email us at sistersletter@aarp.org and share your thoughts on how we, as Black women, can best support one another now.


A girlfriend admitted to me that she has procrastinated drawing up a will for years. Now that headlines are dominated by COVID-19, the wife and mother felt an urgency to do so but also an unease. Since she’s taking care to keep herself and her loved ones healthy, she felt that focusing on end-of-life matters was misaligned with that energy. It isn’t.

I shared with her some of the tips that follow, including some simple measures folks can take to help get money into the right hands quickly that don’t involve a will. My friend came to see that creating a will is a loving step we can take in just one day that can spare our loved ones months of frustration or financial hardship at what is already a difficult time. It’s a part of what we do to take care of those we love.

Is drawing up a last will and testament something that you or another adult in your family has put on the back burner? In 2020, only 27 percent of Americans between the ages of 35 and 54, and 48 percent of those age 55 and older, report having made a will or trust, according to research from caring.com.

So let’s talk for a minute about what happens if you put off making a will and then a worst-case scenario happens. Not only would your loved ones be grieving your loss, they’ll likely pay for costly burial expenses out of pocket and face uncertainty about your final wishes. They may have trouble accessing certain funds because family drama might erupt or a court may have to decide what should happen to your estate (no matter how small or large it may be).

Thankfully, with three quick steps you can spare your surviving loved ones some of that money misery, even if you don’t have a will. My friend is now getting her affairs in order by tackling these mini-tasks first. She’ll use the feeling of ease and accomplishment she’s gaining as motivation to tackle the will next. Consider making these moves just as soon as you can.

Money move 1: Update your beneficiary information

Certified financial planner and estate-planning attorney Shannon McNulty, who heads McNulty Law in New York City, says specifying a beneficiary on your life insurance helps ensure that the money you pass along goes directly to the person you want, since life insurance proceeds pass outside of a will. Just include the name and address of each beneficiary and specify what percentage of your life insurance money each person should receive.

How to do it: Request a beneficiary designation form from your Human Resources department.

Money move 2: Tell your bank which survivor can access funds

McNulty also recommends changing your bank accounts so that they’re titled “payable on death” or “POD.”

Your named beneficiary doesn’t have any rights to your money while you’re still alive. You can even name a new POD beneficiary at any time. But once you die, whoever is named as the beneficiary on a POD account will be able to collect the money in your account whether or not you have a will. That’s because an account with a POD designation also passes outside of probate court (more on that later). Your beneficiary will need to present an ID and a copy of your death certificate to your financial institution.

How to do it: Ask your bank or credit union to mail or email the required form.

Money move 3: Make your car and home joint assets you own as spouses

“For married couples,” McNulty says, “make sure assets are jointly owned if you want to avoid probate.”

Probate is the process by which a court “proves” a will. Going through probate has three main drawbacks. It can be time-consuming, depending on how backlogged courts are in your area. It can be costly, since you often have to pay an estate lawyer for help. Plus, the probate process is public; anyone with prying eyes can see your will if they go snooping through your local probate court. But none of this means you don’t need a will. You probably do.

How to do it: Complete paperwork for each asset you want retitle, such as bank accounts or real estate. For a car, you will need to contact your auto lender, insurance company and state motor vehicle administration.

Whether or not you’ve handled the three tasks above, press on to create a will when you can.

Creating a will online in 30 minutes for free (or low cost)

Even those who aren’t fans of using online software and digital tools to create a will — as opposed to creating a will the traditional way with a lawyer — acknowledge that going online is typically the fastest, simplest way to get this chore done. That’s because you can generate an online will from the safety and convenience of your home, usually in about 30 minutes, without having to visit an attorney or an estate planner’s office.

Services that create online wills typically cost between $20 and $200. By contrast, depending on the state where you reside and the complexity of your financial situation, an attorney may charge you anywhere from $500 to $1,500 to prepare your will.

“Trusts and estate lawyers tell us that only around 10 percent of the U.S. population need a more complex will,” says Jenny Xia Spradling, cofounder and co-CEO of FreeWill, a unique online service that lets you draw up a basic will at no cost. “That means that for 90 percent of people, an online will is an affordable, easy-to-use solution to their estate-planning needs.”

If you have more assets or want to keep your affairs private, you may be better served by having a trust instead of a will. Learn related tips from AARP here in this guide to estate planning.

How to do it: Go online to freewill.com or another online will-making service and start the process of creating a digital will. You’ll find step-by-step guidance through the process.

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