How to Make a Will: A Checklist

Highlights
  • Learning how to make a will does not necessarily require a lawyer.
  • Make a list of your property and beneficiaries before you begin making your will.
  • Think hard about whom to name as an executor and guardian for your children.
  • Make sure your will satisfies all requirements to be legally binding.

Making a will is one of the most important ways you can protect your family and loved ones. A will ensures that your money, property and possessions will go to the people of your choosing. You might assume that you need a lawyer to learn how to make a will, but that’s not necessarily the case. Here’s our quick guide to making a will in 8 steps.

1. Make a list of all your property. Before writing a word, it’s a good idea to take thorough stock of all the property you should include your will. Consider personal property such as your home, car, furniture, jewelry, and cash but also intangible items such as stocks and bonds. Note that certain types of property, such as life insurance proceeds and living trusts, are nonprobate assets that shouldn’t be included in a will because they already have designated beneficiaries. Take the time to research which properties can’t be willed away to avoid unhappy surprises for your beneficiaries.

2. Choose your beneficiaries. Create a list of the individuals and organizations you’d like to inherit your belongings. This will lessen the chance you’ll accidentally leave out someone you care about. Keep in mind that most states prevent you from completely disinheriting your spouse and sometimes your minor children. If this is a concern for you, check your state laws to understand their rights.

3. Consider how you’d like to divide your assets. Once you’ve put together your list of property and beneficiaries, determine how you’d like to distribute your belongings. You’ve got a range of options: you can split all your assets equally among your chosen heirs, split the total by unequal percentages, or assign specific pieces of property to certain individuals.

4. Select an executor. You must name an executor in your will or risk having the probate court name one for you. An executor is the person who’ll be responsible for settling your estate and making sure your final wishes are carried out. This is a weighty responsibility, so choose someone you trust and whom you know to be responsible with money. Naming an alternate executor in case the first can’t serve is also a good idea.

5. Pick a guardian for your minor children. If you have minor or dependent children, you should clearly identify the person you want to take charge of them in the event both you and your child’s other parent are gone. This person should be ready and willing to provide for their basic needs, including food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and education. It’s a smart idea to name a second guardian if the first is unable to accept the responsibility. If you don’t name a guardian, the courts will appoint one for you.

6. Create your will. The most critical aspect of learning how to make a will is understanding the information it must include to be legally binding. A legally valid will should clearly state that it is your last will and testament. It should also include your name and the date. Be sure to note that you’re of legal age to make will in your state and that you have testamentary capacity (“a sound mind”) to do so. This key information is usually included in the introduction of your will.

In the body of your will, you should then identify your executor and any guardian for your minor children. Afterward, explain how you would like to divide your property among your beneficiaries. To make it clear, put each bequest in a separate paragraph.

7. Have witnesses sign your will. Your will must be signed by two adult witnesses (three in Vermont) to be considered valid. The witnesses must understand that the document they’re signing is a will and must sign in your presence. In most states, witnesses must also be “disinterested,” which means that they can’t be beneficiaries under the will. If an “interested” witness signs the will, there’s a strong chance that their gift will be voided, so be sure to use disinterested witnesses.

8. Sign your will. You must sign your will for it to be valid. Usually you must sign it in front of your witnesses. In signing your will, you’re certifying that this is your will and you agree with it contents. If you’re physically unable to sign the will, you’re generally permitted to ask a representative to sign for you in your presence.