Why updating your will should be on everyone’s to-do list periodically

For most of us, wills are something we prefer to ignore. Fifty-one percent of us have successfully ignored the idea to the point of not having a will, according to a 2021 Gallup Poll. Many of the rest of us made wills years ago and then happily never looked back. Who wants to confront their own mortality again?

But the will we made when we were 35 may not be the will that works best in our post-50 years. Our assets and life situation have likely changed dramatically over the decades.

It’s why experts recommend revisiting wills periodically as we age. Yes, it means confronting our mortality — which feels a lot closer in our 50s and 60s than it does in our 30s — but it’s a way to keep your affairs in order and ensure your family’s future comfort. Consider it just another legal document. You can get through the process, and it should be worry-free once you find the right legal advisor.

People of any age procrastinate about writing a will for any number of reasons. These include:

  • Not realizing the consequences. If you do not have a will, New York state will take the reins after you pass away and determine how your assets are distributed. This is frequently an expensive and drawn-out process.
  • Worrying about the cost. Think a couple hours with an attorney is expensive? That’s potentially nothing compared to certain estate taxes that may become due after your death if you don’t have a will in place. Those taxes greatly outweigh the price tag of sitting down and making a legally drafted will. Plus, many lawyers and financial planners offer a complimentary consultation to see if you can communicate and work together efficiently.
  • Erroneously thinking that only rich people need a will. This is a common myth! But whatever your financial status, a will is necessary to protect your family and your assets. Remember, a will not only covers assets such as property and investments, but it can also make sure your granddaughter gets that collection of glassware she has admired for years.
  • Having no idea where to begin. Ask friends and family for recommendations on estate planning attorneys, or meet with a few until you find someone easy to talk to that explains everything clearly. By the way, online will packages that were popular years ago are no longer a good idea, experts say. These mostly-generic forms may not be applicable in New York state. This isn’t a time to cut corners.

Experts advise that everyone, regardless of age, review their will every five to seven years. During this passage of time, many lifestyle factors are likely to change: your marital status, financial situation, or other milestone changes.

Couple discussing will
Photo: iStockphoto.com/katleho Seisa.

“You should absolutely update your will as you get older,” says David Kubikian of Herzog Law in Saratoga Springs. “Your needs and wishes are very likely to have changed over the timespan.”

Today’s financial planners also encourage people to have a written legal document known as a trust in addition to a will. What’s the difference?

A will is a legal document stating who will receive your property at your death. It appoints a legal executor to carry out your wishes. Also, a trustee can be appointed in a will to hold onto assets for specific people in spelled-out circumstances, such as children who are minors, until they reach a specified age. State law mandates that wills are signed and witnessed, and they must be filed with the probate court.

A trust, on the other hand, does not have to go through probate court. It can be used to begin distributing property before death, at death, or afterwards. It holds and protects your assets, including property and investments. Larger and more complex estates generally benefit from having both a will and a trust. The trustee ensures legal transfer of assets to designated beneficiaries. Trustees are obligated to handle the trust solely in the best interests of the beneficiaries.

If you pass away without a will, known as dying intestate, and have made no other planning provisions, state laws will oversee how your assets are distributed. This could be a very long and tedious process, If there are no children, assets are generally turned over to your spouse; otherwise, they are likely to be split among family members. There are other specific provisions based on the number and relationships of people on your family tree.

Thinking about penning your own will and storing it in your safety deposit box? Not a good idea, say the pros. A handwritten will without proper witnesses is valid in New York state only under very limited situations.

That’s why financial planners advise people to work with an attorney. “You will miss necessary details if you write it yourself,” Kubikian says.

While you don’t need to put updating your will first on your to-do list, try giving yourself a deadline to seek out legal advice on the task. If you have not yet drawn up a will, get moving. Warns Kubikian: “The biggest mistake is to have no estate plan in place.”