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How to write a will

More than half of Kiwis are leaving their assets to chance by not having a will.

What goes into a will?

Your will is an extremely important document that contains more than just ‘who gets what’. It contains a number of important final requests including:

  • How you want your assets to be distributed and to whom. This is the ‘who gets what’ part, but it can be a little more involved than that. For example, you may decide to set up a trust to hold onto some assets for a while and hand them out at a later date.
  • Who will carry out the terms of your will. This is called the executor and it should be someone you trust and who is willing to serve. They will help organise insurance policy payouts, debts, taxes and other financial obligations before distributing your assets according to your wishes.
  • Who will be the guardians of your children. If your children are minors, this is an essential way to make sure they are placed with someone you trust.
  • Your burial and funeral instructions. You can decide what you want to be done with your body, whether that is to be a cremation, burial or donated to science.

What’s not covered by your will?

There are a few asset types that wills aren’t designed to handle. These are:

  • Jointly-owned assets. If you own something with someone else, such as a car or a joint bank account, that person receives the asset after you die.
  • Your superannuation. The distribution of your superannuation in New Zealand depends very much on your particular situation. Please check out the Ministry of Social Development guidelines.
  • Life insurance payouts. A life insurance policy is another important way to take care of your loved ones after you die. However, this goes to the policy owner, the policy owner’s estate or whomever is nominated within the terms of the insurance policy itself. If you want to include these funds in your will, you can nominate your estate as the beneficiary and then use your will to distribute the proceeds.
  • Trust assets. Most trusts are considered separate legal entities and ownership is transferred according to the trust deed.

Ways to do your will

Writing your will can be as simple or as complex as you make it. In fact, you don’t even need a lawyer to help you write one (but, we would recommend one, especially if you have a large estate). The bottom line is that it needs to follow these guidelines:

  • It must be in written format, whether handwritten or typed.
  • You need to sign it at the end, but it is a better idea to sign the bottom of each page.
  • You need to have two witnesses in the room together with you at the same time to witness you signing the document. These witnesses cannot be listed in the will as beneficiaries.
  • The witnesses need to sign the document stating they witnessed you sign it and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you did it.

This means you can handle it in one of three ways:

  • Hire a lawyer to help you. This can be your family lawyer, a specialist estate planner or an online on-demand legal service. Your lawyer should know exactly how to guide you through the process, including helping you write it and even serving as one of your witnesses.
  • Write your will yourself. All you technically need to create your will is to write down your wishes on a piece of paper and sign it in the presence of your two witnesses. If you go this route, using a free online template helps you minimise mistakes.
  • Buy a DIY will kit. These kits are basically the same as choice two, except they have templates for you to follow and instructions on how to explain your wishes. You still need to sign it in front of two witnesses. You can buy these at your newsagent, bookstore or online.

Since the document needs to be worded as clearly as possible, hiring a lawyer makes a lot of sense for everyone, even if it is just to review your final document after you’ve written it.

How to write a will yourself

Once you’re ready to get it all down on paper, here are the general steps to follow when writing your will:

  • Look at some examples. There are plenty of example wills online. Reading through some of these can get the cogs turning and help you consider various ways to structure yours.
  • List your assets. Make a list of all your assets, including financial assets and physical belongings. Be sure to include anything with sentimental value, even if it is not particularly valuable.
  • Think of everyone you may want to include. Before you start divvying things up, think about anyone and everyone you may want to include in your will (including churches, clubs and charities). Thinking carefully about this helps you avoid forgetting anyone, even if you don’t end up including them in the final document.
  • Decide who gets what. Make this as clear as possible. Include a detailed description of the asset, the exact percentage the person is to get and the person’s name, address and relationship to you.
  • List those you are excluding. If you choose to exclude someone, explain clearly why you’ve chosen to do so to avoid legal battles in the future.
  • Add any other instructions. Further instructions can include who gets guardianship of your children, who you wish to ensure the terms of your will are followed, who is to manage your children’s inheritance and what happens to your body after you die.
  • File it away. Put your will somewhere safe and tell your loved ones where they can find it. A will that no one can find is just as bad as having no will at all.
  • Update as necessary. There are many reasons you may want to update your will, including an increase in assets, getting married, getting divorced, having a baby or experiencing a death in the family.

As previously mentioned, it is not required that you use a lawyer to help you draft your will (although we would definitely suggest that you do!) If you decide not to use one, there are plenty of resources online where you can get some help.

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