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Understanding a last will & testament

Everything you need to know about wills and how they work

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

Updated|7 min read

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With a last will and testament, simply referred to as a will, you can leave instructions for what happens to your estate to provide for your loved ones and family members after you die. It’s relatively straightforward to make a will, but you’ll want to understand what’s legally necessary to create one and what happens without it. Whether you’re just getting started on your estate plan, or you have questions about the ins and outs of probate, our library of explainers has what you need.

What is a will?

A last will and testament is a legal document that lets you distribute your assets, money, and belongings to your beneficiaries when you die. The terms of a will only kick in after you pass away; they’re not enforceable during your lifetime. A will also allows you to name a guardian for your minor children, and appoint an executor, the person who will manage your estate and carry out the terms of the will.

A strong estate plan starts with life insurance

What’s covered in a will?

You can use your will to give away virtually anything you own outright. This could include real estate, like your house, money, high-value assets like your cars or art collection, and even items of little monetary value, like your plants. 

→ However, some things you should never put in your will 

Making a will involves naming beneficiaries to receive your assets, and it should be constructed according to certain rules. The specific requirements to make a will legally valid are set by state law, so they vary depending on where you live. At a high level, a will includes the signature of the testator, and the signature of two witnesses who can testify that the testator signed the document and was competent to do so.

Are wills only for rich people? 

Everyone can benefit from having will. People who have children, are married, or divorced especially need a will to make sure their dependents and family members are covered, but even single people can greatly benefit from getting a will. If you have just one item you want to pass on to a specific person, then a will is necessary to make sure that happens. 

→ Find out who else needs a will

When there is no will

If you don't have a will, then the probate court will decide what to do with your assets after you're gone based on state intestacy laws. Your surviving spouse and next-of-kin typically inherit something, but there won’t be a way to enforce what assets they specifically receive. (If you want someone other than a spouse to inherit something then you definitely need a will to say so.)

A will doesn’t just codify who gets your stuff. You can use it to specify which items your beneficiaries can receive or how much. Without a will, your heirs may not receive the assets exactly as you had intended.

→ Learn more about what happens if you die without a will

Types of wills 

There are many different types of wills, and one of them may be right for you.

What is a joint will?

Married couples may consider writing one will together. Joint wills aren’t allowed in all states.

Read about whether you need a joint will 

What is a holographic will?

Handwritten wills are legal in some states without any witnesses, but only under narrow circumstances.

Read more about holographic wills

What is a pour-over will?

You can instruct your will to transfer assets into a trust after you die, whether it’s a living trust or a testamentary trust created upon your death.

Read more about pour over wills

How to write a will

Here are some common ways to of making a will:

Do it yourself

You can write a will on your own from scratch, but note that handwritten wills may not be valid in every state. Unless you have legal experience, it’s possible you may miss something or leave errors, which can make your will more vulnerable to a court challenge or contest. 

You can also fill out a blank will form or template, but DIY wills may leave gaps in your estate plan. A last will and testament template that you fill in on your own may not be tailored to your personal circumstances.

Make an online will 

Using a digital service or app is a good option for many people because you can make a personalized and state-specific will without necessarily having to research your state’s laws. Just make sure any service you use has been vetted by attorneys so that you know it will create valid wills.

→ Read about online wills and how to make one

Work with an estate attorney

The traditional way to create a will is by working with an estate planning attorney who specializes in wills and trusts. Attorneys who are licensed to work in your state should know the local laws, and they can help you create a strong will that’s tailored to your needs. 

While many people can create an effective will without an attorney, you may benefit from an attorney’s help if you have a large estate, wealthy estate, many beneficiaries, a blended family, or if you want to disinherit a close family member. An attorney can also help you plan for any estate tax or inheritance tax.

→ Learn more about who should hire an attorney

Can you just write a will and get it notarized?

Notarization in and of itself won’t qualify your will as a valid legal document, but if you want to make your will self-proved, then you’ll need to pay a visit to a notary public with your witnesses. With a self-proved will, your witnesses don’t need to appear in court after you’ve died to testify about your will. 

→ Learn more about notarizing a will and when it’s necessary

How much does a will cost?

  • Price of online wills: $0 to $300

  • Price of attorney-drafted wills: $200 to $1,000 or more

Creating a will with a lawyer will almost always cost more, especially in bigger cities. However, it may be worthwhile if you have more complex needs, like if you need legal advice on minimizing taxes, creating a trust, or writing someone out of your will.

→ Learn more about the cost of a will

After creating your will

Once you’ve created your last will and testament, you should revisit it regularly, especially after you reach new milestones, like getting divorced, remarried or having another child.

Can I update my will?

You may want to update your will if you've made an error, left something out, or experienced a major life event. Once your will is signed, you can make changes to your will — like by updating the terms with a codicil —  but you’ll generally have to go through the same formal signing process of having the new document witnessed. That’s why if you have many updates it’s common to simply write a new will that replaces the old one. 

→ Learn about updating your will with a codicil

Where to store your will 

Your will won't’ be very useful if no one can find it. It’s a good idea to leave a copy with someone you trust like your executor. You should think twice before putting your will in a safe deposit box, where it may be difficult for someone to find once you’ve passed away.

→ Find out how to keep your will safe

Other will and estate planning questions

Below are some other common questions you might have on wills and estate planning.

How to know if you’re in a will

After the testator dies, their will eventually becomes part of the public record once probate has concluded. Contrary to pop culture, will readings don’t actually happen. If you’re mentioned in a will as named beneficiary, then the executor will notify you. 

→ Learn more about how to find a will 

Who should be my beneficiaries?

The beneficiaries of your will can be your family, friends, relatives, and even charities or businesses. A will can include contingent beneficiaries, or back-up beneficiaries in case the primary ones have predeceased you. 

Your beneficiary can also be your executor, the person tasked with carrying out the terms and administering your estate.

→ Learn more about choosing beneficiaries

What is probate of a will?

Probate is the process of administering your estate after you die. If you die without a will, then the local court will determine your heirs during this time. When you have a will, its terms guide what happens next. The authenticity of your will may also need to be proven, and during this time your will may also be contested or challenged by your beneficiaries and potential heirs. Writing an airtight will can help probate run smoothly, avoiding potential court interaction.

→ Learn when a will has to be probated

How is a will different from a trust?

Wills and trusts are two important, but different, parts of an estate plan and they work hand in hand. While a will allows for one time distributions, pairing it with a trust allows you to have your assets managed and distributed over time or once your children reach a responsible age that you determine. A trust is a separate entity and it allows for greater control. You can also have your will create a trust upon your death — a testamentary trust

→ Learn more about trusts vs wills and how they work together

Do I need a will if I have life insurance?

The proceeds of a life insurance policy can pass to a beneficiary outside of a will. In fact, you shouldn't include life insurance in the terms of your will, but it can work alongside of it as part of your estate plan.

→ Learn more about life insurance and financial planning