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There are only two things in life that are certain, as the saying goes: death and taxes. While there are ways to limit the amount you’ll pay in taxes, all the miracles of modern medicine aren’t going to allow you to cheat death. The best you can do is to be prepared so that when you do die, your family is well-positioned. One estate planning option is to write a will, which is a legal document directing what will happen to your estate.

What Is a Will?

A will is a legal document detailing your last wishes, specifically those regarding the distribution of your possessions and the care of any minors. It can contain a number of different directives, but it generally will include at least the following information:

  • An executor, who is responsible for ensuring that all instructions are carried out per the deceased’s wishes.
  • A list of beneficiaries, who are the people who will inherit the deceased’s property. You can choose to leave all of your possessions to a spouse or child. Or, you can opt for a more complicated arrangement, like dividing all of the money in your estate among various relatives and even leaving specific pieces of property to certain people.
  • Details on to pass the property to the beneficiaries.
  • Designated guardians for your children if they are minors. This can be part of a joint will between two spouses.

Having a will can make things easier for your family when you die, but it won’t save them from the probate process. This is a court-supervised process that authenticates a person’s will, assesses the individual’s assets and then distributes those assets to the person’s named beneficiaries. You’ll need to form a living trust to avoid probate, though you’ll also likely still need a will.

Conventional wisdom says that only people who are older or wealthy need to create a will or worry about estate planning. However, even people who are young and have modest amounts of assets should have a plan for when they die. This is especially true for people who have children who they want to ensure are properly cared for.

How to Make a Will


There are a variety of ways to make a will. The most simple option is to write it yourself, which you can do in a truly free-form manner. Simply write down what you want to happen to your estate. There are also online templates available that can provide a basic format to follow, allowing you to just fill in the blanks. You can also buy a computer program to help you.

Another option is to hire a lawyer to assist. Complicated estates often benefit from a lawyer. If you are dividing your assets among a big group of relatives, for instance, hiring a lawyer is a good idea. Similarly, if you have a complicated set of assets — multiple homes and mortgages or lots of money tied up in investments, for example — a lawyer can prove useful. Lawyers can also help if you want to disinherit a child or spouse or if you are worried that someone is likely to challenge your will in court after you die.

Doing it yourself has the obvious plus of being free. Buying a will-writing program has a cost, and hiring a lawyer is the most expensive option. Regardless of which method you choose, you and two witnesses typically must sign the will. No states requires notarization, though that may expedite the probate process.

What a Will Cannot Do


There are some things a will simply cannot do, including:

  • Leave property in a living trust.
  • Leave money in a 401(k) or IRA for which you have listed a beneficiary for the account.
  • Give funeral instructions. Your family may not read your will until after your funeral. Therefore you’ll want to write down specific wishes for your funeral. Let your family know whether you want your remains buried, cremated or donated to science.
  • Put conditions on your beneficiaries. For instance, you can’t say that you’ll give $10,000 to your son only if he gives up his stand-up career and attends business school.
  • Leave money to pets. It is possible, though, to name a caretaker for your pet and give them money to take care of the animal. Just make sure you trust the person will actually buy Fluffy the organic dog food she loves.

Common Mistakes in Wills to Avoid

There are some common mistakes that you should avoid when writing a will. The main misstep is failing to pay attention to the rules. The rules surrounding wills are different in each state, so make sure you are considering rules regarding age limits, witnesses and other regulations.

Another common mistake is choosing a bad executor. The executor is the person who ensures your wishes are carried out, so make sure it is a competent person you trust. You’ll also want to be sure you name a guardian. If you have minor children, you’ll want to choose someone to care for them in the event you’re gone.

Last but not least, don’t forget to update your will. As you get older, your financial and personal situation will change. Make sure you update your will to reflect that.

The Bottom Line

A will is a legal document setting up your estate and directing what happens with your property and assets after you’ve died. Wills can be simple, with one beneficiary for everything, or complicated, with many beneficiaries. There are a few things a will cannot do, including creating a plan for your funeral and final arrangements. Writing a will by yourself is possible, but it’s a good idea to hire a lawyer if your estate is complex.

Estate Planning Tips

  • A financial advisor can help you make sure you have money to leave for your family. Find one with SmartAsset’s free financial advisor matching service. After you answer a few questions, we match you with up to three advisors. We fully vet our advisors and they are free of disclosures. You then ask questions of each advisor and make a decision about how you want to move forward.
  • When you’re planning your estate, you’ll want to have an idea of how much you’ll have saved by the time you retire. Get an idea of your eventual savings with our free 401(k) calculator.

Photo Credit: © iStock/roberthyrons, © iStock/Anze Furlan/psgtproductions, © iStock/Duncan_Andiso

Ben Geier, CEPF® Ben Geier is an experienced financial writer currently serving as a retirement and investing expert at SmartAsset. His work has appeared on Fortune, Mic.com and CNNMoney. Ben is a graduate of Northwestern University and a part-time student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®). When he isn’t helping people understand their finances, Ben likes watching hockey, listening to music and experimenting in the kitchen. Originally from Alexandria, VA, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
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