List of What Should Be in a Will

by Beverly Bird
Common considerations include who will care for your minor children and choosing an executor.

Common considerations include who will care for your minor children and choosing an executor.

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The purpose of your will is to explain exactly what you want to happen with your property and how you want to provide for your loved ones when you die. These are unique concerns because no two families are exactly alike, so wills aren't one-size-fits-all documents. You can customize yours to address all that's important to you, but most people include a few common provisions.

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Naming an Executor

Someone has to make sure the terms of your will are carried out. This is your executor, the individual who will guide your estate through the probate process and make sure the proper distributions are made to your beneficiaries. If your estate is particularly large or complex, you can appoint a professional to handle the job, such as your bank, a lawyer or an accountant. A professional is typically entitled to compensation from your estate. If your situation is relatively straightforward or you just don't want to involve a stranger, you can name a friend or family member as executor. You might want to make sure that whoever it is gets along with your beneficiaries to save everyone headaches and hard feelings down the road.

Your Property and Gifts

Make a list of everything you own, then cross off assets that do not require probate to pass to beneficiaries. These usually include things like life insurance or retirement plans that pass directly to named individuals by contract or real estate that you hold with someone else as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Determine who you want to give your remaining assets to so you can make specific bequests in your will. Some testators leave their estates to beneficiaries in percentages – you might dictate that your spouse receives half of everything and your children share equally in the balance. These terms belong in your will, and making them clear-cut can streamline the probate process.

Disinheriting Certain Individuals

When you die without a will, the state decides who gets your property. When you write a will, you don't have to leave your property to anyone you don't want to receive it – with one glaring exception. You typically cannot disinherit your spouse unless you have a prenuptial agreement stating otherwise. If you try, she can reject the terms of your will and the court will give her a statutory share of your estate instead. This can affect your remaining bequests, leaving less for others. If you want to disinherit someone, confer with an attorney to make sure you do it correctly. In some states, it's helpful to specifically mention in your will that you don't want a particular person to inherit.

Providing for Your Children

If you have minor children, you can include special provisions for them. You'll probably want to name a guardian, or someone to care for and raise them in your stead so the court won't appoint someone you wouldn't have chosen. If you leave them inheritances, a conservator must be appointed to manage their money or property until they reach the age of majority. You can name the same person to fill both roles, but you may not want to. Someone who's good with managing money might not be equally gifted with children. Another option is to create a testamentary trust in your will. The terms of your will can direct that your executor form the trust and move your children's share of your estate into it. This still requires naming someone to manage the trust – a trustee. He can distribute money to them or their guardian on a schedule you determine in your will, or you can give him discretion to do so as necessary.