Guidelines for Writing a Will

By A.L. Kennedy

Your will is a document that explains how your property should be handled after your death. Preparing your will can be a complicated process, especially if you have children or significant assets. Following guidelines or checklists for preparing a will may help you and your attorney ensure that nothing is left out and that your instructions are clear.

Beneficiaries

Your will should specify your beneficiaries, or the people or charities you want to receive money or other property when you die. Common beneficiaries in wills include children, spouses, or other family members or loved ones, as well as institutions like colleges or charities. If you do not specify your beneficiaries, your assets will be distributed according to state law, which may not reflect how you want them distributed.

Executor

The executor of your estate is the person who will carry out the instructions in your will. Your executor should be someone whom you trust to follow your wishes and someone who is a legal adult. You may want to name a "backup" executor in case your first choice dies before you do or does not want the job when the time comes. If the executor you choose cannot or will not perform, most courts will appoint an executor.

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Guardian

If you have minor children, you should name one or more persons to be the children's legal guardian if you pass away before they reach adulthood. You may also want to name a second guardian in case the first one passes away before you do, cannot care for your children or does not want to.

Conservator

You may or may not wish to name a conservator if you have minor children. A conservator is someone who will manage any money you leave for the children on the children's behalf until they reach adulthood. The guardian and the conservator are usually the same person, but some states allow you to appoint a second person as conservator. Choosing a separate conservator may be wise if you do not trust the children's guardian with their money or the guardian does not want to manage the children's money.

Conditions on Gifts

Based on your circumstances, you may want to place certain conditions on gifts you are leaving to family members or charities. The law in most states allows you to use conditions such as age restrictions -- for instance, if you do not want a child to inherit until age 25, most states will honor this restriction if it appears in your will. However, you cannot make any restriction that "offends public policy," such as prohibiting a spouse or child from marrying.

Assets

Certain assets must be included in your will if you wish them to pass to your beneficiaries in the way you have directed. For instance, any money or investments you own in your own name, your house, and your personal possessions should be listed in your will. Some assets, such as jointly owned bank accounts and life insurance policies, do not need to be listed in your will because they pass immediately to the other owner or beneficiary on your death.

Exclusions

If you wish to exclude someone from your will, you may wish to make your exclusion clear, according to the Chronic Illness Alliance. However, it is wise to consult an attorney before doing so to ensure the exclusion is worded correctly. Exclusions often result in a will being challenged, especially if the will specifies a reason for the exclusion that the excluded person finds slanderous. If you wish to exclude a child, you must specify that you wish to do so. A child whose name does not appear in the will is usually entitled to a percentage of the estate in most states. Unlike children, you cannot exclude your spouse.

Backup Provisions

You may wish to include a secondary or "backup" plan in your will in case one of your beneficiaries passes away before you do or is otherwise unable to receive his or her share of your estate. For instance, you may wish to specify that the portion of your estate that was supposed to go to your child should go to his or her spouse or your grandchildren instead.

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What Is a Surviving Primary Beneficiary?

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