A last will and testament, usually just called a will, is a legal document that lays out what someone wants to happen to their money and possessions after they die. Someone who creates a valid will is known as a testator. The word testatrix is an antiquated term for a woman testator. The word testator can refer to someone who is alive or has already died. (Someone who has died is also called a decedent.)
Who can be a testator?
In most states you can create a valid will, and thus be a testator, if you are at least 18 years old, you are of sound mind and making the will of your own volition (referred to as testamentary capacity), and you have two witnesses present when you sign your completed will.
However, some states have laws that are more or less restrictive. For example, some states allow 14-year-olds to write wills and someone who qualifies to witness a will in one state may not qualify in another. There may also be circumstances where you don’t need to meet all of these requirements, such as with oral wills or handwritten wills (holographic wills) if they're allowed in your state.
And while it may not be necessary, getting your will notarized is a good idea in because it can make the probate process easier for your family and heirs. (If you’re concerned that your estate’s probate process will be complicated, you may want to talk with an estate planning attorney for legal advice.)
Learn more about the requirements for a valid will
The responsibilities of a testator
The main responsibilities of a testator involve writing a comprehensive and valid will, and then ensuring that people are both aware of the will’s existence and know where to find it after the testator dies. You can create the perfect will but it’ll be useless if no one can find it after you die.
Make your will comprehensive
When you create a will, ensure it covers all the assets — money, property, or other belongings — that you will leave behind. You should name will beneficiaries who will receive some or all of your assets. You can name a specific individual to receive an asset or you can choose for each beneficiary to receive a certain percentage of your estate (the collection of everything you owned, including the residuary estate).
Here are some things you shouldn't put in a will
Name your executor
Your will should also name an executor, also called a personal representative. Your executor is the person responsible for carrying out the instructions in the will after you die, handling your final income tax returns, and paying off your debts as necessary. Failing to name an executor could result in a probate court having to appoint someone (called an estate administrator) to handle your estate.
Learn more about how to choose an executor and what they do
Consider guardianship for children
If you have minor children, you can use your will to name a guardian to take over their care after you die. A will is one of the few ways to address guardianship, so don’t skip this step even if you plan to pass on your assets through a trust.
Share your plan
Make sure people know about your will and where to find it. At the very least, your executor needs to be able to find your will after you die. Similarly, any time you amend your will — like by adding a codicil — or create a new will, notify your executor to avoid any last minute surprises.
Learn more about where to store a will