What to Take to a Lawyer for a Will

Lawyer & Client Filling Out Paperwork | What to Take to a Lawyer for a Will

Cornell’s Law School defines a will as “a legal document that states a testator’s wishes and instructions for managing and distributing their estate after death.” Everybody can benefit from having a will written in legal terms by a lawyer, so that their wishes can be upheld in a court of law and extend beyond their own life. Without a will, judges will rule on what they believe is best, but leaving behind a will ensures your wishes are weightily considered when making decisions about any finances, assets, debts, and beneficiaries you leave behind. 

After making the decision to create a will, you are likely wondering where to begin. We can help save you time and money by preparing you for understanding what documents and information you will need to provide to a lawyer in order to complete your will. 

One of the lengthiest parts of the process for you will be the decision-making. You’ll want to spend time thinking about how you’ll divide your estate, to whom it will pass, and who is in charge of overseeing your will’s execution. A person of modest assets who has decided to distribute their entire estate to one person or entity will have a fairly simple will. A person with a variety of assets or way they want to divide them or stipulations they want to include will have a possibly very complex will. 

For example, if you are dividing assets amongst several children, you might have to consider that it may not be as easy as dividing 50/50 or 33/33/33. You can divide money that way, but not real estate. Can your children sell the real estate and then divide the money? Who gets to sell it, or do they all have to agree on a selling price? As you can see, these decisions cascade and can take time to think through. 

Why Prepare Before Going to the Lawyer’s Office

Lawyers typically bill in one of two ways: per hour or per project. In both scenarios, it is advantageous to have all of your paperwork ready up front. 

When lawyers bill hourly, you’ll save money by being prepared from the start. If you bring all of the necessary items (think bank statements and loans) and information (think Social Security Numbers for you and your intended beneficiaries) to your first meeting, you may only need a few emails back and forth or a 2nd meeting to finalize and sign documents once the lawyer has completed your will. If you don’t have all of the documents and information for the first meeting, however, your lawyer will have to take time to explain to you what you are missing, possibly how to get it or what form they’ll need it in, and how to get those documents and information over to their office once you find it.

All of the time they spend meeting with you, creating this list, following up about the list via email, checking in with you about where you are in the process of completing the list, and filing away each added document or information will be billable time. Instead of them working on your will in a single setting, they will have to return to the file again and again, update their organization of the file, and piecemeal the document together, oftentimes reviewing it each time to remind themselves of where they left off the previous time and what is still needed. All of this time can add up very quickly. Instead of the back-and-forth, save yourself time and money by gathering all of the necessary documents and information upfront. 

When lawyers bill by project, this typically means they have a set rate for a particular finalized document. They may have built in extra hours in this price assuming it would take some of their time and back-and-forth communication to gather all documents, meaning you could potentially save money by going with hourly billing rate route. But overall, if you do decide on this route, you’ll save your own time by being prepared from the start. Wills in most states require lawyers to have access to the same types of documents and information, so by reading the list bellowing and preparing those for your first meeting, you’ll save yourself time and be able to get your will done faster.

Information Needed: 

  • Decisions about people- who is getting or is in charge of what you leave behind
  • Named beneficiaries, including family members, friends, and charitable organizations
    • Social Security Numbers
    • Birthdates
    • Full legal names
    • Contact information (phone, address)
  • Who do you want to be the executor
    • Social Security Number
    • Birthdate
    • Full legal name 
    • Contact information (phone, address)
  • Who do you want to be the guardian for any minor children
    • Social Security Numbers
    • Birthdates
    • Birth certificates
    • Full legal names
    • Contact information (phone, address)
  • Instructions for any items of significant emotional value
  • Any special instructions for your funeral

Documents Needed: 

  • An overall list of all of your assets, to name and locate where each are currently housed. 
    • For example, your credit card and bank accounts linked to spending will continuously change, but your lawyer will need to know the account numbers and  at which banks you have accounts. 
      • Checking accounts
      • Savings accounts
      • Safety deposit boxes
      • Cash storage or other items locked or hidden with instructions on how to access them
  • Copies of statements of each of your assets currently. Examples include (not a comprehensive list)- 
    • Mortgages and real estate deeds
    • Any debts or loans (car, student, medical, lines of credit, etc.)
    • Vehicle titles
    • Retirement accounts (401ks, ROTH IRAs, etc.)
    • Health Savings accounts (HSAs, FSAs)
    • Insurance policies
    • Investments (stocks, bonds, etc.)
    • Documentation for anything else of significant value (art, jewelry, etc.)
    • Tax records (not always necessary, but helpful to have accessible when and if needed)

By thinking through these decisions and gathering all necessary information, you will save time and money in getting your will done efficiently and thoroughly. No matter when you start this process, it might seem daunting, but it is crucial to do so to save yourself and your family headaches in the future. By gathering these documents and making these decisions now, you’ll make any adjustments in the future much easier, since the initial legwork will be taken care of. The work you do now, even if you have changes later, will always pay off.