A will is an important estate planning document that says who gets what after you die. It can also name a guardian for any minor children and appoint an executor to settle your estate. Dying without a will means letting a court determine your heirs, who may not be the beneficiaries you actually wanted.
Fortunately, making a will can be fairly simple; you can even prepare a will online that passes under probate. Before you write your will, there are still a number of things you’ll need to think about — like what you want to give away and who will get it — so we’ve prepared a will checklist with six easy steps to help you.
Remember that a will is only one part of a strong estate plan. As you go through the will preparation checklist, you may find that you have more questions and that your situation requires more than just a will. You can check out our general estate planning checklist here.
1. List out your assets
Your estate is the collection of everything you own when you die, so you can start preparing your will by making a list of all your property and assets. You don’t need to list out every single one of your belongings — you can pass low-value items as personal property in your will as the residuary estate. (Using a good will-preparation service or attorney will know these terms and help ensure you don’t have to do more work than you have to.)
You should still make note of specific items though, including any real estate, high-value possessions, and anything with sentimental value that you want to bequeath to a certain person.
Things not to include in your will
There are a few assets that you can leave out of your will (but that you should definitely keep track of; don't forget about funeral expenses, for example), since they can pass directly to your chosen beneficiaries another way:
Payable on death accounts, like a bank account or retirement account
Life insurance benefits
Jointly owned assets
Get more details about what you should never put in your will and a deeper look at why.
2. Account for debts and taxes
As part of your will preparation, you may want to do some accounting and think about what debts you have and when you might pay them off. You don’t need to include your debts in your will; just know that any debts of the estate must be repaid or settled before assets can be disbursed to your heirs. Owing debt might reduce the inheritance you can leave for your loved ones, so it’s good to account for that potential consequences. (Related article: Learn what happens to your debt when you die.)
Similarly, if your estate is especially large, you may owe state or federal estate tax. If you have tax concerns when it comes to your future estate, this is a good indicator that you should speak with an estate attorney for legal advice to prepare your will and trust.
3. Choose your beneficiaries
The most important part of the will is to name beneficiaries for your things. A beneficiary can be a family member or friend, a business, or even a charity. You can name a single beneficiary for everything or you can name multiple beneficiaries. You may also want to consider naming a contingent beneficiary in your will; this person receives an asset if your primary beneficiary is unable to inherit for any reason.
While you’re preparing a will checklist, you may find that you have more stipulations or concerns about a beneficiary. For example, they may have special needs or spendthrift habits you need to plan for. If that’s the case, you may want to set up a specialty trust to pass them any assets instead of a will (more on trusts later).
4. Appoint an executor
Once you pass away, you’ll need someone to carry out the terms of your will. This person is called the executor and they will be in charge of managing your estate and ultimately distributing the assets to the right people. The executor has many duties to fulfill which might require a bit of time, depending on the complexity of your estate. Make sure to choose someone you trust who is up to the task. Many people choose a spouse or family member, but others may choose someone unrelated like a lawyer.
Learn more about choosing an executor.
5. Name a guardian
If you have any minor children, you should name someone to take care of them after you’ve gone. Failing to name a guardian leaves the decision up to the court and they may not pick who you wanted.
Minor children who receive assets may not be able to use them until they reach the age of the majority in your state.
Read more choosing a guardian for your child.
6. Gather your witnesses
It’s a common requirement for a will to be signed by two witnesses. Many states often suggest that the witness of a will is someone that is not named as a beneficiary. Deciding who you want to act as witnesses during your will preparation can save you time later during the process of making your will self-proved and notarizing it.
Learn more about witnessing a will.
Additional estate planning tools
In addition to preparing a will, there are some other essential estate planning document you should consider getting to complete your estate plan.
A living will, also called an advance directive, lays out instructions for your future health care.
A power of attorney can grant someone legal authority to make decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated (physically unable to make decisions).
A letter of instruction lets you speak your final personal sentiments to loved ones and beneficiaries.
A trust can give you more control over assets and allow your beneficiaries to receive them faster. Wills and living trusts can work well in conjunction with each other in a solid estate plan.