Your Last Will and Testament: A Beginner's Guide
What is a Will?
In its most basic form, a will is a document that stipulates specific instructions that are to be followed in the event of your death. Typically, wills are used to distribute physical property, but you may certainly leave other directions as well. Often, wills are used to name legal guardians for minor children in the event of a parent's death.
Many estates require more extensive planning; however, there are only four basic legal requirements to make a will legal and binding:
- The will must be written, either handwritten or typed.
- The will must be signed by the testator who is the person writing the will.
- The testator must be at least 18 years of age.
- The will must be signed by two witnesses who have witnessed the testator as well as each of the other witnesses sign the will.
- What Happens if You Die without a Will versus with a Will?
If a person dies without a legal will in place, his or her property will be distributed by the state or states in which he or she owns the property. However, anyone who writes a will has the option of having his or her property distributed in three basic ways:
- Anyone named as a beneficiary to a particular asset, such as a life insurance policy, will receive the particular asset.
- Anyone listed as a joint owner on a particular asset, such as a piece of real estate, will receive that asset as the surviving owner.
- When an asset does not have a clear beneficiary or joint owner, then that asset may be distributed via a will. A last will and testament really only applies to this third category, then.
How Do You Write a Will?
People who are 18 or older can legally write wills on their own. However, it's recommended that you work with an attorney as you write your last will and testament as a way to make certain that this will holds up in a court of law.
What Should a Will Cover? What Should be Included in a Last Will and Testament?
As you talk with an attorney and begin considering your will, here are some basic questions to consider:
- Who would you want to list as your beneficiaries? Most commonly wills are used to disperse specific gifts and assets to recipients. These assets and gifts may be sums of money or concrete items. These recipients are called beneficiaries of the will. You may also stipulate in your will when and how assets are to be distributed to any minors. You may need to consider what you want to happen to an asset should a beneficiary pass away before you do. Depending on the details of your estate and your last will and testament, there may be other items that your will covers.
- Who would you want to be the guardian of your minor children? If you have minors, it's important to have a will in place that makes this clear for their sake. This part of your will may have a series of instructions. For example, you may list a specific guardian for your children, or you may want to simply name someone who would make a decision about the guardianship of your children on your behalf. You may leave instructions to a guardian as to how you would want your children to be raised. Additionally, you may want to name someone to manage your estate for you until such time as your minor children grow up and inherit.
- Who would you want to name as an executor? An executor is someone who would deal with specific aspects of your will and your estate in the event of your death. The executor is a kind of manager whom you trust to carry out the instructions given in your last will and testament.
Nobody enjoys thinking about a last will and testament. However, if you have minor children or if you own any property of value, it is recommended that you work with an appropriate attorney to write a last will and testament that makes your wishes clear and that will hold up in a court of law.