How to Understand a Last Will & Testament

By A.L. Kennedy

It is easier to understand a last will and testament if you are familiar with the topics most wills cover. It helps if you also understand the words and phrases most commonly used in wills. Learning how to understand a last will and testament can make the probate process easier. It can also help you learn to write your own will, or provide you with insight into the information your attorney will require to prepare a will for you.

Step 1

Open the will to its first page. Although there is no specific format for wills, most contain a few common phrases and clauses that identify specific jobs for certain people to perform to carry out the decedent's last wishes. Skim the will for the terms "executor," "personal representative," "guardian," "conservator," and "beneficiary." Note the names of the people appointed to each of these positions. If the will creates a trust, there will also be one or more names designated as "trustee."

Step 2

Note the names of the appointed persons in the will, the title of the position each is given, and any other information, such as the person's address, that is included in the will. The executor or personal representative is responsible for contacting all persons named in the will to let them know that the deceased person has passed and that they are included in the will. Some state laws refer to the person responsible for carrying out the will's instructions as the "executor," while other states refer to this person as the "personal representative." Although you may see either term in a will, they both refer to the same person.

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Step 3

Find the section related to the estate's debts. It may include words, such as "debt," "bill," or "expense," and it is often near the beginning of the will. This section may be quite short, or it may take up several paragraphs. This portion of the will tells the executor or personal representative what to do when handling the estate's bills.

Step 4

Find the sections that discuss the guardian and/or conservator. These people are responsible for caring for any children under age 18 that the deceased person left behind. Generally, the guardian is responsible for the children's upbringing, while the conservator is responsible for managing the children's assets until they become adults. If no conservator is named, the guardian is responsible for both roles. This portion of the will may give specific instructions to the guardian and conservator as well as identifying who should do the job.

Step 5

Check for a list of personal property. The section of the will leaving property to beneficiaries may tell you where to find this list. Often, a personal property list is attached to the back of the will. It contains the names of various items the decedent owned, along with the names of the people who are to receive them. If the portion of the will that distributes property is very short, or if the decedent had very few items of personal property, the list may be omitted or it may be in the body of the will.

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