Writing a will is perhaps the most important step in the estate planning process, but roughly 67% of American adults reported not having a will in 2021.
The primary purpose of making a will is to choose beneficiaries to receive all of your assets. Your beneficiaries may be family members or loved ones, or an organization such as a nonprofit. You'll also choose an executor, someone whose job is to carry out the wishes listed in the will.
In this guide, we'll cover how to make a will and highlight how to change one, along with common mistakes to avoid in the process. You can also view the infographic below to see more about the steps involved.
Creating a will, step-by-step
Creating a will is a crucial step toward forming an estate plan that accounts for your wishes. If you pass away without a will, you're considered intestate, which means state laws will determine how your assets are distributed by the probate court. Having a will in place allows you to decide who will receive your assets, which can help reduce time, cost, and conflict in probate court.
To ease the burden on your family and loved ones, consider writing a will promptly. The nine steps below will help you get started.
- Choose an Executor
- Make Detailed Property Records
- Decide Your Beneficiaries
- Appoint Guardians to Minor Children
- Make a Plan for Your Pets
- Protect Your Digital Legacy
- Put Your Will on Paper
- Change or Update Your Will as Needed
- Abide by Your State's Estate Laws
1. Choose an executor
The executor, or personal representative, is the person who will be in charge of handling your estate. This should be someone you trust and who is responsible and organized—administering an estate involves a lot of paperwork.
You should talk to this person ahead of time to be sure they are willing to accept the role. Let them know where to find important documents, such as your will, insurance policies, and passwords for online accounts.
2. Make records of your property, including debt
A will can cover any real and personal property of the testator, so make a comprehensive list to work from while you decide who gets what.
- Real property includes: Houses, land, and other immovable objects
- Personal property includes: Bank accounts, stocks, jewelry, family heirlooms, and other items
Remember that you can only bequeath what you own, so if you own something jointly, you can only give away your share. For example, if you own a vacation home with your best friend, you can only give away your share of the ownership in your will.
Any debt you have will carry on to beneficiaries if they're not covered by your remaining assets.
- Debt includes: Mortgages, credit cards, car loans, student loans, tax debts, personal debts, and medical bills
Make sure your beneficiaries are aware of your debt standing so they can make plans to mitigate these debts.
3. Choose your beneficiaries
Beneficiaries are the people who will inherit your real and personal property according to your will. You should also name alternate beneficiaries in case your primary beneficiaries pass away before you.
4. Consider what will happen to your children
When a parent passes away, the other parent usually gets custody of the minor children, but if the other parent has passed away or lacks capacity then it's important to nominate someone to step in.
- Think about who you would want to raise your children should something happen to you and the other parent.
- List legal guardians for any minor children (under 18).
- Consider listing a second choice for guardianship, should your top choice be unable to assume the responsibility.
Because of the responsibility this position can entail, it's crucial to talk to your chosen guardian(s) to be sure they will agree to step in and take care of your children.
5. Make sure your pets have a home
For many people, pets are members of the family, but under the law, they are personal property. In your will, you can include a provision detailing who should take responsibility for your pets, as well as any special care instructions.
Just as with any guardians for minor children, you should speak with your chosen pet guardians ahead of time to make sure they are willing to take in your furry, scaled, or feathered family members.
6. Protect your digital legacy
It's important to consider what you would like to happen to your social media, important accounts you use, and websites you maintain once you're gone. Be sure that you share any relevant login information, such as passwords or security questions, with the appropriate people. A password manager can keep your sensitive information in one place, making it easier to transfer hands. You might also need to include your computer password and phone PIN for the people you choose to access these accounts.
Some sites, such as Facebook, have built-in provisions for handling your page after you're gone, and you can select your preferences now. But you should still also make your wishes known in your will so that your executor or other loved ones can take care of your digital legacy to your liking.
7. Put it on paper
Here are two tips to help you write your will.
- Be specific: Don't leave it up to chance for readers to interpret your will as you wish. Use clear language and exact names when deciding who gets what.
- Be realistic: Know which tangible assets, like artwork or furniture, you can bequeath to specific people to avoid conflicts about splitting things equally.
8. Change or update your will as needed
If you need to make changes to your will, you can amend it by adding a codicil that bears your signature and any relevant witness signatures as set forth by state laws. You can also rewrite your will completely if it needs more than a minor change.
Any changes you make to the executor or beneficiaries of your will must be noted among the updates. You don't legally need to inform these people that their role in your will has changed, however. This information is not made known to them unless you pass away and they are still listed by name in your will.
Review your will periodically. This helps you stay on top of life changes.
9. Abide by state laws to validate your will
Most states require that your will be signed in the presence of witnesses. Each state has different laws for how many witnesses are needed, who can serve as a witness, and whether any other requirements are needed. Be sure to follow your state's laws. If you change or update your will, make sure all copies reflect those changes and that updated copies are also signed by the necessary witnesses.
Other rules for will validation are:
- You must be of sound mind when you sign your will.
- You can't be under duress when creating the will, meaning no one forced you to make any decisions.
Review information below on how you can change a will and when you might want to do so. Remember that a will is a living document, and it should be updated as your life progresses.
Changing a will: What you need to know
As things change, it's reasonable to expect that your will and estate planning documents might need to change, too.
Before changing a will, you should:
- Make certain the executor of your will is still able to carry that responsibility.
- Ensure the legal guardians for your children are still willing to take on that duty.
- Note if any beneficiaries need to be removed from the will for any reason.
- Consider if there's been a significant change in the value of your estate.
To make changes to your will, you can sign a codicil that acts as a minor modification or addendum. This can be done by identifying any changes in writing and signing and dating the codicil document. Be sure to abide by any state-specific laws regarding witnesses for your codicil. This document should be kept in a safe place, ideally with your original will.
If you want to make major changes to your will, you can write a new one to replace any old versions. You'll need to follow the same procedure as your first will, including obtaining necessary witness signatures. If this is the route you choose, be sure to collect any outstanding copies of old wills so they won't conflict with your new copy.
Is a LegalZoom will adequate for your needs?
Wills are among the simplest legal documents. Whether or not a will is wholly adequate for your estate planning needs depends on your circumstances. If you're unsure what you need to protect your family, consult a lawyer. Our Estate Planning bundle comes with a year of advice from independent attorneys in our network.
The most important thing is that you don't neglect planning your estate: Protect your loved ones and make sure your assets are distributed according to your wishes. Compare LegalZoom's different kinds of estate planning products.
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