The One Thing I Wish My Father Had Done

Planning ahead is the ultimate gift to your loved ones.

Dads: You might be expecting gifts on Father’s Day. After all, it’s tradition to show appreciation to the man of the house for everything he does. You might be hoping your kids or spouse will spring for that grill, watch, smartphone or another item you’ve been wanting.

But this year, how about giving your family a gift? Sure, it’s your special day. However, because you do play such an important role as a dad, there is something you should do: Write a will.

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My dad died at the age of 61 without a will. Although more than half of adults in the U.S. don’t have a will or living trust, according to a Caring.com survey, I know my dad recognized the importance of having estate-planning documents. He was an attorney, after all. Yet, he hadn’t bothered to draft a will or living trust, which certainly made things a lot harder for me, my sister, my stepmom and stepbrother when he died.

Of course, writing a will isn’t as fun as opening gifts on Father’s Day. But it’s an act of generosity, said Liza Hanks, an estate planning attorney in Mountain View, Calif. “This is a gift you give to the next generation,” she said. Here’s why you should do your kids a favor and write a will.

A Will Makes Your Death Easier for Your Loved Ones

You might think you don’t need a will if you’re not rich. But that’s not why you need estate planning documents. “It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of money or a lot to pass on,” Hanks said. “It’s about making things easier for the people you care about most.”

Without any sort of written plan for what happens when you die, you force your loved ones to make decisions they might not want to have to make and sort out what you’ve left behind. “You’re just shipping the responsibility to people who are way less prepared,” Hanks said.

Not to mention, your family will be grieving. Dying without a will can make a tough time even more difficult for your loved ones.

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A Will Lets You Decide Who Gets What

A will gives you a say in who gets what, even if you don’t have a lot. “If you don’t have a will, the state will have a will for you,” Hanks said. Every state has laws that specify what happens to property and assets when someone dies without a will.

“If you want to have some control over where your property goes at death, you need to write it down,” Hanks said.

A will also allows you to name an executor, somebody who will act on your behalf after you die. For example, this person will have to file your last tax return, settle debts and distribute assets. If both you and your spouse die and your kids are young, you might want this job to go to, say, your responsible sister rather than your slacker brother, whom a judge might name as an executor, if you haven’t specified who should fill this role.

A Will Lets You Decide Who Cares for Your Kids

As a dad, even more important than specifying who gets what is deciding who will care for your kids if you and their mother die while they are young. A will lets you name a guardian for your minor children. “If you don’t pick who the guardian is, all you’re doing is letting someone else make that choice,” Hanks said.

A will also lets you name someone to manage assets for your children. “You can’t leave a house to a 5-year-old,” Hanks said. “Somebody has to manage it for them.”

Deciding who will care for your children and oversee any assets you leave behind for them can be hard choices, Hanks said. But wouldn’t you rather make those choices than have the court make them for you?

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Other Estate-Planning Documents You Need

Dads, there are other estate-planning documents you also should draft to make it easier for your loved ones if something happens to you, Hanks said. A durable power of attorney for finances lets you name someone to manage your finances for you if you’re not competent to do it yourself. If something were to happen to you (a stroke, coma, dementia) and you hadn’t named a power of attorney, someone would have to go through expensive legal proceedings to be appointed to make financial decisions for you.

An advance healthcare directive lets you name someone to make medical decisions for you if you can’t. It also allows you to spell out what sort of medical care and end-of-life support you want. This document is especially important if you don’t want your loved ones to end up in court fighting over whether to keep you on life support.

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Ideally, you should hire an attorney to draft a will, power of attorney and advance health care directive for you to ensure your estate plan covers all the bases. If you can’t afford an attorney, you can find low-cost documents online at websites such as Nolo and LegalZoom.

“Basic is better than nothing,” Hanks said. “You can always upgrade later if your finances improve or have more time.”

You also might be able to get free fill-in-the-blank versions of these documents from your state bar association, Hanks said. Search online for “free will,” your state and “bar association.”

Click through to read more about¬†how to ensure your family doesn’t feel financial pain when you die.

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