A Standard Last Will & Testament

by Kristin Shea
If leaving specific gifts to beneficiaries, remember the value of some assets change over time.

If leaving specific gifts to beneficiaries, remember the value of some assets change over time.

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Although state laws vary on the requirements for a last will and testament, all wills contain the same basic sections for paying debts and taxes, distributing assets and arranging care for your children. Review your state’s statutes to be sure you have satisfied your state’s requirements for a legal will. All situations are different, so be sure to tailor the language to address your unique family and financial circumstances.

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The preamble of your will should state your full name and express that you are of sound mind and body, and that you revoke all previous wills and codicils.

Funeral Expenses, Debts and Taxes

The provision on funeral expenses, debts and taxes should direct your executor to pay certain enforceable debts. Every state has different provisions governing the payment of debts from the estate. Some states have laws that specifically govern payment of debts and so render this clause unnecessary or redundant. Regardless, the executor should only pay those debts that are enforceable by law and the clause should direct the executor accordingly. Language in this section should give the executor the authority to pay funeral and hospital bills out of the estate, as well as all applicable taxes and expenses associated with the estate.


You can distribute specific assets to individual beneficiaries or divide the estate as percentages. If allocating specific assets to specific individuals, keep in mind that the existence of assets can change over time. If the asset doesn’t exist, the court can’t award it, so you might want to choose language that provides an alternative gift. All states have provisions prohibiting disinheritance of spouses. The court will award your spouse the statutory amount, regardless of whether your will reflects it.

Residuary Clauses

A residuary clause addresses to whom the remainder of the estate should be given. Consider that the value of certain assets changes and so your residual estate might be much smaller or much greater than at the time you executed the will. If you haven’t planned for this eventuality, you could unintentionally disinherit a loved one or provide a substantial windfall to a charitable organization that you meant to leave a token gift.


You should name an executor to administer your estate and enumerate the executor’s duties. Depending upon your assets and intentions, these duties might include distribution of assets, maintenance of real property, sale of real property, investment of assets, collection of income and payment of debts.

Guardianship of Minor Children

One of the most important aspects of a parent’s will is the provision for naming a guardian for minor children. If you are married to the children’s other parent or share custody of your children with your partner, the section can include language that names a guardian in case your partner predeceases you.

Guardianship of Pets

Arrange for the care of your pet, especially if you live alone or are the sole caretaker for your pet during your life. The New York City Bar explains that a pet owner is prohibited from leaving any part of an estate to an animal. You can, however, leave a sum of money to the person you designate to care for your pet, along with a request that the money be used for the pet’s care.

Testator Signature and Witnesses

To execute your will, you must sign and date the document in the presence of witnesses. Each state requires different numbers of witnesses and provides different laws governing the execution of a valid will.