What You Need to Have in Your Will

What You Need to Have in Your Will

Don't put off writing a will ­– it's a critical part of every family's financial planning and it allows you to determine what happens to your estate when you die. You can also specify a trusted person to handle your estate through the court probate process, and even name a preferred guardian for your minor children. Here is a short list of what you should include.


List Your Property

It's a good idea to identify your assets to make it easier to find them, even if you're leaving everything in your estate to your spouse. List real estate holdings, savings and investment accounts, vehicles, and any other significant real and personal property you own, like jewelry. Don’t forget about any signed documents that transfer ownership of any of certain items when you die. For example, many bank and investment accounts offer "payable-on-death" assignments where you can specify to whom you want the account assigned at your death. These effectively remove the account from your probate estate, so you can't leave them to another beneficiary in your will. The same is often true with life insurance accounts.


Identify Your Beneficiaries

The main purpose of a will is to specify who you want to inherit your property, so you should make it very clear who these people are. This is simple enough when you're married and you're leaving everything to your spouse, but if you've been married three times and leave money to "my ex-spouse," the broad identification creates problems. Juneau, Alaska, attorney Ray Preston suggests that the more details you provide about each beneficiary, the better. "List the full name, the last known address, and even the date of birth for each beneficiary," he says. "It's better to have too much information than too little."


Name an Executor

Will assets often do not pass directly to your beneficiaries when you die. In many cases, your will must be filed in probate court first, and the court supervises the distribution of your estate. The person in charge of navigating your estate through probate is called the executor. You can and should name a trusted family member, friend or professional you've worked with to this important job. It's a good idea to ask that person before naming her in your will to be sure she is willing to serve. You can also name a second choice for executor if there's any doubt, and the person you would like to serve as guardian of your children if they're still minors.


Include Will Witnesses

Not every will must be witnessed, but most states mandate that two adults watch you sign your will and sign it themselves. Witnesses can testify after your death that it really was you who signed the document, that you were of sound mind when you did so, and that you understood that the document you were signing was your will. 

Some states, such as California, don't require witnesses for wills written entirely in your own handwriting, but exceptions to this rule are few and far between. It's best to have witnesses unless you are very certain that they're not required. An attorney can advise you on the particular rules for witnessing a will in your state.


Key Concepts

  • Writing a will
  • Writing last testament
  • Drafting your will