Six steps to writing your will.
Use a will to pass on your assets and property and name a guardian for a minor child
You may want to create other estate planning documents to supplement your will
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 heirs you actually wanted.
Fortunately, writing a will can be fairly simple; you can even make a will online that passes under probate, the process of validating a will. 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.
Your estate is the collection of everything you own when you die, so the first step in preparing your will is to make 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 the terms of your will. (Wills use certain terms like that so you won’t need to go out of your way to name everything you own; a good template, will-writing service, and attorney will 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.
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:
Get more details about what you should never put in your will and a deeper look at why.
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 effect. (Related article: 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 to help craft your will and trust.
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 your 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).
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 family member, but others may choose someone unrelated like a lawyer.
Learn more about choosing an executor.
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 about guardians and guardianship.
It’s a common requirement for a will to be signed by two witnesses. Many states often suggest that the witness is someone that is not named in your will. Knowing who you want to act as witnesses can save you time later during the process of notarizing your will.
A will is an essential estate planning document, but there are others you may consider 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 trusts can work well in conjunction with each other in a solid estate plan and you can create both using the Policygenius app.
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Elissa is a personal finance editor at Policygenius in New York City. She writes about estate planning, mortgages, and occasionally health insurance. In the past she has written about film and music.
Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.