How to Prepare a Will

By Teo Spengler

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.

Step 1

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.

Step 2

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.

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Step 3

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.

Step 4

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.

Step 5

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.

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How to Write a Last Will


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How Can I Do My Own Will?

Less than half of American adults have wills. One reason for this low figure might be the common perception that wills are complicated and expensive to prepare. Although large and complex estates may require estate-planning services and legal advice, many people with smaller holdings use simple testaments. All jurisdictions accept self-drafted testaments that meet probate requirements. Some states -- such as California -- make it easy for people to draft their own wills by providing a valid form will in the statutes and allowing handwritten wills.

How to Address the Executor of an Estate in a Letter

Think of your executor as the co-pilot of your assets; when you are no longer able to captain your affairs, she takes over the controls and administers the estate through probate. Many people identify the person to administer their estate in their written will. If you do so, it also makes sense to leave a letter to assist your chosen executor to locate beneficiaries, identify assets and verify debt. This kind of verbal map of your holdings enables the executor to facilitate probate and wind up your estate as quickly and efficiently as possible.

What Documents Do I Need to Bring to Prepare a Last Will & Testament?

You can help your attorney prepare your last will and testament by bringing certain documents with you when you and your attorney meet. These documents will help ensure that your will covers all necessary topics and contains correct information, making it more likely your desires will be carried out after you die.

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