What to Include in a Last Will & Testament

By Rob Jennings J.D.

While you will enjoy unlimited freedom to revise your last will and testament during the course of your lifetime, any mistakes you make will not become apparent until you are no longer alive to correct them. In order to provide an orderly administration of your estate for the benefit of your loved ones, your will should cover several key points.


An executor is an individual whom you appoint in the will to administer your estate. The executor is charged with satisfying valid claims against the estate using estate property, pursuing valid claims that constitute estate property and preserving assets for the benefit of your beneficiaries. The executor must also distribute estate property to your beneficiaries in accordance with the instructions in your will. Your executor can be any competent person of your choosing, but aim to select a financially stable person whom you trust and whose personal life circumstances will not prevent her from carrying out your last wishes. Family members, close friends and lawyers are frequent choices.


If you die without leaving a will, the laws of intestate succession in your state will dictate who gets your property. When you write a will, you get to make that decision. Beneficiaries are those who will receive your assets after you die, subject to claims against the estate, and can be friends, family members, schools or charities. In setting forth your beneficiaries, be sure to include enough information so that their identity can be readily ascertained. State law may affect your ability to disinherit a spouse; if your will leaves her nothing or leaves her less than the share allotted her under the applicable statute, she may successfully challenge your will.

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While children are often beneficiaries under a will, the subject of minor children requires special attention. Name a guardian of the estate for property left to children who have not yet reached the age of majority, or place their share of your estate in a trust that you establish in the will. Name a trustee to manage the assets for their benefit. If possible, designate a legal guardian to take care of the children until they become adults. If you are divorced or separated, custody of your minor children will usually vest automatically in the other parent, who will take priority over any guardianship preference you express in a will.


Be sure to sign the will in the presence of at least two witnesses, each of whom will sign attesting that they saw you sign that specific document, and have them provide addresses so that your executor can locate them, if necessary. Sign or initial each page and have your witnesses do the same. This will help defeat claims by a challenging party that one page or another was altered after your death.

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The executor pilots the last will and testament through probate. She takes charge of the estate of the deceased, files the will in probate court and administers the property through distribution. The probate court supervises the executor's actions -- from the time the will is filed in probate until final distribution of assets to heirs -- to assure honesty and accuracy. A valid will is a legal will. To provide a legal will for the executor after your death, draft and execute your will according to state requisites.

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Form wills simplify do-it-yourself will drafting. A good form will, prepared or approved by your state bar association, eliminates the need to research probate procedures and will requirements in your jurisdiction. Statutory wills -- state-approved form wills included in state probate statutes -- are best. Large or complicated estates may require legal assistance, but form wills serve well for many simple estates. Consider that the simple will an attorney prepares is likely a form-will template adjusted to your particular situation.

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If you have property, you should have a will. This document specifies how your assets should be divided on your death, and helps your heirs avoid a costly and difficult court procedure. Drawing up a will is a fairly simply procedure; you set down a few sections to specify your beneficiaries and bequests, and witness signatures make the document legal.

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