What Is the Format for Writing a Will?

by Carrie Ferland

Executing a will is the only way to avoid intestacy probate, wherein the court divides a decedent’s estate according to the governing state’s intestate succession laws. For the court to recognize the validity of a will, however, the testator must execute the document following the correct format. State probate law defines the requirements for the format, structure and contents of a valid will. A testator who fails to adhere to these requirements when establishing his will could risk his will being declared invalid in probate, forcing the court to set aside his instructions and subjecting the estate to intestacy probate.

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Establishing Your Will

You must first establish the document as your last and only will, which requires you to title your will as the “Last Will & Testament of (Your Full Legal Name).” Below this title, you should revoke any and all prior wills and codicils you previously executed, even if you never knowingly established a will in the past. Including such a statement prevents any confusion over other documents you have established, which may appear to be your will, from superseding your actual instructions.

Appointing Your Administrators

For most wills, the very next section is the appointment of the estate’s administrators. These are the individuals you appoint to assume the responsibility of managing and administering your estate. You should name at least one executor to oversee your estate, submit your will for probate and divide your assets among your beneficiaries according to your instructions. If you have a more complicated estate, or you want to assign different tasks to various administrators, you can appoint “task-specific” administrators with explicit instructions on what powers and responsibilities each administrator shall have. Whenever possible, name an alternate administrator to serve on your behalf if your first choice is unwilling or unable to serve. Otherwise, the court will appoint someone for your estate following state intestacy guidelines.

Listing Your Assets

Your will should contain a list of your larger assets, such as real property, monetary interests and cash assets, including bank accounts. You should describe each individual asset as best you can, providing physical addresses, account numbers and passwords whenever possible. You should also list your personal property if you intend to bequeath it to a certain beneficiary. Anything not explicitly defined in your will and appropriately bequeathed to a named beneficiary will become a part of your estate’s residual assets, which is either given to one specific beneficiary or liquidated for the estate’s use, depending on your instructions.

Naming Your Beneficiaries

After describing your assets, the next section of your will should contain a list of your estate’s beneficiaries. These are the individuals or entities who will inherit your estate’s assets after your passing. You can bequeath specific property or cash amounts to each beneficiary however you desire, or assign a portion of your estate by percentage. When you are finished, name a beneficiary to inherit the residual assets; this beneficiary will receive everything that you did not bequeath to a specific beneficiary.

Defining Additional Instructions

In addition to the above, you can define any other instructions for the administration of your estate as needed. What you include directly relates to your personal circumstances -- for example, if you have minor children, you would appoint a guardian to assume custody of your children and instructions for how they should be raised in your absence. You can define instructions for your funeral arrangements, arrange care for an elderly parent, establish a trust for your surviving relatives or include directives for just about any legal purpose.