A will is a document in which a person describes the management and distribution of her estate after her death. Per common law, a "will" disposed of real property while a "testament" disposed of personal property, but today the courts use the terms interchangeably. No state requires a will, but persons dying without wills cede to the state all decisions about estate distribution. With a will, a testator makes her own inheritance decisions, selects an appropriate executor for her estate, and names a guardian to raise her minor children in the event of her death.
Know your assets. Write out a list of your holdings, including bank accounts, cash, life insurance policies and real estate holdings. Add valuable personal property such as fine art, jewelry, old books and antiques. Include livestock, vehicles and heirlooms. If it is valuable to you, put it on the list. Specific identification as well as data about asset location promotes swift estate distribution.
Determine your devises. The core of a will is the section specifying which heirs get what property. Use clear identifying information to describe assets and complete names and addresses to describe heirs. If you condition a bequest -- for example, leave everything to your spouse if he is alive at the time of your death -- include alternative beneficiary information. Simplify if you can; consider an attorney for complex estates.
Disinherit any relatives you do wish to include as heirs. Few states impose any restrictions whatsoever on disinheriting spouses or adult children. Make clear in your will your intention to disinherit by specifically naming the person, together with identifying information and devising him $1. Failure to name a child you wish to disinherit may lead a court to assume you forgot that child, and forgotten children may be able to claim an equitable share of the estate.
Name trusted individuals to serve as executor of your estate and guardian of your minor children. An executor administers your estate after you die, collecting assets, locating heirs and dividing the property after estate bills are paid. A guardian raises your minor children. Consider a separate financial guardian for minor children to handle their inheritances until they reach majority. Banks often serve in this role.
Execute your will according to state law. Most states require that two of-age witnesses watch you sign the will and sign after your name. Choose disinterested witnesses who do not stand to inherit under your will. Some states preclude a spouse from serving as a witness.