Among those nagging personal-planning items owner-operators should take care of – saving for retirement or kids’ college tuition, or getting a comprehensive health screening – preparing a last will and testament probably falls farthest out on the radar screen. Among the general public, 57 percent of respondents to a poll by Bankrate.com, a personal finance website, say they don’t have a will. Yet three-fourths of respondents say everyone needs one.
And everyone can have one, since making a will requires little time and a lot less money than saving for retirement.
For the quickest and most fail-safe approach, use an attorney. “A basic will with some attorneys might be a couple of hundred dollars,” says Ken DeWitt, an Alabama accountant whose clients include motor carriers. “If it’s really sophisticated, $500 to $1,500.”
That’s a sum well spent when you consider the costs in time and money of settling a contested estate, as when more than one person is listed as an owner of property, DeWitt says. An early death with heavy life insurance can make even a pauper’s estate worth fighting over. “It’s nothing for people now to have $2 million to $3 million life insurance policies,” he says.
Because of the many potential problems involved in settling an estate, DeWitt advises against drafting one yourself. But if you go that route, there are plenty of resources.
The best-known self-help legal website, Nolo.com, offers extensive information on estate planning, including a $59.95 online will-writing service. Other websites offer versions at prices lower and higher than that. Free legal forms can be found on some shareware sites. Will-writing software also is available at office supply stores.
(A warning about do-it-yourself wills: Louisiana has some unique laws. If your residency is there, use an attorney or ensure that any documents you prepare are valid in the Bayou State.)
You also can find assistance in preparing a living will and power of attorney for health care. This allows you to specify your intentions about when to discontinue medical treatment if you’re ever unable to communicate your wishes, and who should make that decision for you.
A will is good indefinitely, though you should update it after major family changes, such as marriage, divorce or birth or adoption of a child or grandchild.
“Do your children and heirs a favor,” DeWitt says. “Get a will. It’s like going to the doctor – one of those things you should do.”
If you die without a will
- The state, in its infinite wisdom that might not agree with yours, decides who gets your assets.
- The state also chooses who will be the guardian of any minor children.
- No matter how small your estate, it’s common for heirs to contest its settlement when a will does not spell things out.
Passing on your business
Being self-employed doesn’t necessarily entail a complicated will. If the only aspect of your business you intend to pass on is equipment, you can deal with it like any other property.
If you’re independent and have a thriving business that you’d like to keep in the family, your attorney can help you address this in your will. But there’s a bigger matter to deal with, and you should do so long before you retire or die, says accountant Ken DeWitt, a former columnist for Commercial Carrier Journal. “It’s not so much a legal succession planning issue, but management succession planning,” he says.
An independent needs to be brutally honest about whether any relative has the skill and desire to continue running the business. If not, the wisest move could be to bring in a non-relative with management skills, even if he or she doesn’t get an equity stake.
“You love your children, but that doesn’t mean they can run your business,” DeWitt says.