Creating a will—an overview

A will expresses how you want your assets to be distributed upon your death. If you don’t have a will, your assets will be distributed according to your state’s probate laws. Not only could this process be expensive, but it may also mean that it might not be handled the way you want.

Is a lawyer necessary?

Not always. Go it alone if you feel comfortable and have the time. You can use a reputable online legal source, such as Nolo, or you can consult one of many self-help books. But if you want peace of mind or if you need a good legacy plan because you have complex assets, such as businesses or large amounts of money or property, secure the help of a family or probate lawyer.

Basic requirements

You must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind to create a will. The document must state that it is, in fact, your will. It must be dated and signed in the presence of two witnesses. (In some cases, it must also be notarized.) If you are married, it’s recommended that each spouse create his or her own will. Be specific with your wishes—this is your chance to distribute your valuables the way you want.

Name an executor

Your will must designate the person who will execute the terms of your will. You can appoint a lawyer, accountant, friend, relative, or any other trustworthy person or professional. The executor will likely spend more than a bit of time handling the paperwork, so if you would like to appoint a friend or relative, ask that person first. Also name a contingent executor, in case the first person cannot serve or declines to serve. Nowadays, some people appoint an online executor to handle the closing of social media accounts or to create online memorial profiles. Your online executor will need a copy of your death certificate, so you might want to add this provision to your will.

Name a guardian

Should both you and your partner die at the same time, a will ensures that your underage children will have care from someone whose parental views match your own, instead of from someone appointed by a court. Be sure to consider naming a guardian.

Choose your beneficiaries

Beneficiaries are the people or entities that will receive your assets. Make sure you name both primary and secondary beneficiaries. Assets include bank accounts, deeds to homes or cars, investment accounts, and any valuables. Note that some assets, such as life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and jointly owned property, contain their own designated beneficiaries. These beneficiaries supersede those named in your will.

After your will is done

Once your will is final, store it in a safe place (it does not need to be filed or registered with any government agency) and tell a couple close relatives or friends where it is located. Do not keep it in a safe deposit box unless you have made arrangements for someone to have legal access to it. As the years go by, or if your life changes in significant ways, revisit the document and make sure it reflects your wishes.

Your will is one of the most important documents in your estate plan. Be sure to take the time now to get all the pieces in place.

Sources, “Why every parent needs a will,” accessed December 1, 2014,, “Make your will: a quick checklist,” accessed December 1, 2014,, “Writing a will,” accessed December 1, 2014,

SLPC 26320 12/14 (exp. 12/16)

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