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How to Make Your Will

last will and testament

Who needs a will? You do! With a will, you—not the state—make the decisions about what happens to your assets after you die.

Writing a will isn't difficult, and by spelling out your wishes you're making things easier for those you leave behind.

Why You Need a Will

Maybe you feel there's no hurry to write a will because you’re healthy and don’t have many assets. But don't put it off.

If you die without a will—called intestate—the state you live in will gain control of your assets and act on your behalf. A court-appointed administrator will make decisions about distribution of your property and the guardianship of your children. The state’s one-size-fits-all approach to settling estates may go against what you actually want to happen with your estate.

Get Started

Don't be deterred by cost or complexity. Simple wills are inexpensive and the process is straightforward.

Do it yourself or hire an attorney?

  • Do it yourself. You'll find legal software online at sites such as Nolo Press or Legal Zoom.*
  • Use an attorney. Using an attorney may cost more, but you may be able to find one that charges a flat fee for preparing a will (sometimes as little as $100). Find out what information you'll need when you meet with your attorney and come prepared.

Decide on an executor and guardian.

  • Executor. An executor files your will with the court upon your death and makes sure the terms of it are followed. Name a trusted friend, a family member, or a professional fiduciary such as a bank trust department or attorney.
  • Legal guardian. If you have children under the age of 18 you also need to name a legal guardian (caretaker) for your minor children. Discuss your expectations with your potential caretaker(s) and make they are willing to take on that responsibility.
  • Include backups. Name contingent executors and guardians in case your first choices are unable to serve. Use the same care in selecting these people as you did with your primary choices.

Take Inventory

Keeping an updated list of your assets and beneficiaries will help you and eventually your executor keep track of any accounts you might have.

Compile a list of accounts. Include the bank, insurance, or investment firm’s contact information and account numbers. Note any assets that are titled, or co-owned, with someone else. The person on the title is legally in line to take full ownership of the asset, regardless of what your will says.

Keep the list in a safe place (in a home firebox or safe or in a bank safety deposit box) and make sure your executor knows where it is.

Sync your beneficiaries. Check beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies. If you have assigned beneficiaries on these accounts, the asset will go to them even if you name someone else in your will.

Update Your Will

Store a copy of your will in a safe place (a home firebox or safe, or in a bank safety deposit box). Also give a copy to a family member or friend who will be involved in your affairs after you’re gone. If you make changes in your will, destroy earlier copies.

Respond to changing life events. Legal experts advise reviewing a will or other estate planning documents regularly. That way, you can make adjustments for changes in relationships—the death of an heir or guardian, a birth or divorce in the family, etc.—or changes in economic circumstances for you or your heirs. You also may want to alter certain parts of your will if tax laws change.

Review beneficiaries. Keep your beneficiary designations on retirement savings plans and life insurance policies current and make sure they’re in sync with your will and other legal documents.

Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement of recommendation by Smart About Money.

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