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How to Write a Will

Barbara Diggs

Key Takeaways

Make sure to spend sufficient time considering your property and beneficiaries before learning how to write a will.

Include the specific language and information necessary to make your will legally binding.

State your wishes clearly and identify all property, beneficiaries, executors or guardians unambiguously.

Execute your will in accordance with state law or it may be invalidated.

Writing a will isn’t a topic that most people are thrilled to think about, but it’s extremely important. Having a will is a key step in protecting your family and loved ones from financial and emotional stress after you’re gone. Don’t let fear of not knowing how to write a will stop you: if you have straightforward assets and bequests, the process may be less complicated than you’d think.

Preparation for Writing a Will

Before sitting down to write your will, take certain steps to prepare for the process. With these steps under your belt, the actual writing of the will becomes much easier.

Learn the basics about wills. Make certain you understand what a will is and the importance of creating a valid will. This knowledge can help guide your decisions as you create the will, and ensure that your will can withstand any legal challenges after you’re gone. If your will doesn’t meet the legal requirements of a will, a probate court is likely to invalidate it.

Assess your property. Make a comprehensive list of all the property that should and can be included in your will. Your property may include tangible assets such as real estate, personal possessions and cash, but also intangible property such as stocks, bonds, business ownerships, royalties, and patents. Note that certain types of properties, such as a living trust or the proceeds of a life insurance policy, will not be governed by a will because they name their own beneficiaries. Be sure to consider whether you own properties that can’t be willed away.

Determine your beneficiaries. Your beneficiaries are the persons or entities to whom you wish to leave your property. Consider whom you want as beneficiaries, and whom is legally entitled to inherit a share of your property. Note that most states prevent you from completely disinheriting your spouse and, in some instances, your minor children. As with your property, devise a list of the beneficiaries you’d like to include.

Decide how to create your will. After having examined your assets and beneficiaries, you’ll be in a good position to determine how you want to create your will. If you have a straightforward estate with uncomplicated bequests and beneficiaries, you may choose to use an online software program or preprinted legal forms. If you have a large and complex estate, you may need to consider other options.

Writing the Will

The key to knowing how to write a will correctly is firstly understanding and including all the written elements that make a will legally valid. Secondly, it is clearly and expressly stating your wishes with respect to the disposition of your property.

Write the introduction. The introduction to your will should be titled: “Last Will and Testament” and include your name and date. It should also note that you’re 18 years or older (or of legal age to make a will in your state), and of sound mind. This information establishes that you intend the document to function as your will, clearly identifies you as the maker of the will, and demonstrates that you meet the legal requirements for making a will.

Identify your executor. An executor is the person in charge of carrying out the wishes in your will and settling your estate. This person should be explicitly named in your will. You can have more than one executor and it’s a good idea to name a successor in case your primary executor is unable to serve. If you don’t name an executor, the probate court will assign one – usually, a spouse, adult child or closest relative.

Name a guardian for your minor children. If you have minor or dependent children, you should unambiguously identify the person who will be responsible for them after your death (and that of your spouse). Also name a backup guardian if the first guardian is unable to accept the responsibility. If you don’t name a guardian, the courts will appoint one for you. Note that if your spouse is alive at the time of your death, legal guardianship automatically passes him or her. If this is not an advisable situation, you should consult an attorney.

Divide your property among your beneficiaries. Clearly explain who should receive your property. You can do this by assigning your heirs a specific percentage of your total assets. For example, you might state that your husband is to receive 50 percent of your property, your parents 10 percent, and your children are to evenly split the remainder. You can also make specific bequests of property to specific persons or entities (e.g., Aunt Millie gets your cat, your sister gets your Google stock, etc.). For clarity, each bequest should be written in a separate paragraph.

Executing Your Will

The final step in knowing how to write your will isn’t actually about writing, but about execution. If your will is executed improperly, it won’t be legally binding.

Sign your will. You must sign your will in front of two witnesses (three in Vermont). Your signature attests that the document is your last will and testament and that you have approved its contents. If you’re physically unable to sign the will, you can usually ask a representative to sign for you in your presence.

Ask your witnesses to sign your will.

Your witnesses must sign the will in your presence. Their signatures certify they know the document being signed is meant to be a will, and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you signed it. Be careful not to select witnesses who are beneficiaries under the will. In most states, beneficiaries cannot also be witnesses to the will signing.

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