A last will and testament is one of those things you probably don’t want to think about on a random Sunday at the park. It's also one of those things you’ll be so glad you did.
Fun or not, we should all consider what would happen to our loved ones if we died. Writing a will is especially important if you’re a parent or have people who depend on you.
Full disclosure: Fabric offers a free online will you can create in five minutes, plus instructions on how to make it legally binding.
In fact, more than 70 percent of the people making a printable will online with Fabric have kids under age 18.
But kids aren't the only reason to make a will. Do you support a parent? A significant other? A sibling? Among customers under age 45 without young kids (who provided beneficiary details), 34 percent chose a parent as the person to inherit their assets. Meanwhile, 26 percent chose a significant other such as a spouse.
Creating a last will and testament is important, and it can also be surprisingly simple.
A last will and testament is a document that determines what happens to your property if you die. It lays out whom your belongings should go to, how and who’s in charge of making that happen.
Making a will also gives you the opportunity to name an executor (the person responsible for distributing your assets) and a legal guardian for your children.
If you don’t have a last will and testament in place when you die, the government will figure out how to deal with your property. Payable on death accounts, not governed by a last will and testament, will go to the people you've specified on those accounts. Otherwise, the courts will try to identify your heirs and distribute your assets accordingly. The state will also figure out who should claim guardianship of your children.
For many people, simply sitting down to think through these questions can make a tremendous difference. Of course, if your situation is complex or if you have specific questions, it’s a good idea to speak with a qualified legal professional.
When you're learning how to write a will, one of the most important things is to simply get started.
Decide whether you want to hire a lawyer or write your own will online (Fabric, for example, offers free wills online).
Identify your will beneficiaries (the people who will inherit the things you've left behind).
Choose a legal guardian for your child (that's the person who would take care of your kids if worst came to worst).
Decide on an executor for your estate (that's the person who's tasked with fulfilling your wishes).
Consider other wishes, like who should take care of your pets if you pass, or any particular instructions about your funeral.
Sign your last will and testament.
Find two witnesses (people who aren't listed in your will) and ask them to sign, too.
Get your will notarized, if your state requires it (most don't).
Your assets: That includes bank account balances, real estate, investments, retirement plans, life insurance policies, artwork and anything else you’re leaving behind.
Your debts: Your last will and testament can help establish how your estate should settle your debts. First, your assets will likely pay for any probate costs and funeral expenses. Then they’ll flow to your outstanding debts. If you leave your beneficiary a house that’s partially mortgaged, will he or she have to sell it to keep up with mortgage payments?
Your beneficiaries: These are the people or organizations who will inherit the belongings and assets you leave behind.
The executor of your estate: The executor will make sure your wishes are carried out and your finances are in order. This could include making sure your beneficiaries receive the money you’ve left them. It can also include filing your final taxes, paying any bills you left behind and closing your financial accounts.
Your children’s legal guardian: This legal guardian will be responsible for your children’s welfare. That includes food, shelter, health and schooling until age 18.
A will allocates money by naming the recipients of your estate. Meanwhile, a trust fund provides instructions on money that you want to go to a specific person in a specific manner. (What is a trust fund?)
Examples might include leaving money to a special-needs child who could use the help of a trustee to manage his finances. You might also use a trust to dictate rules about how and when your money should be distributed. For example, maybe you don’t want your child to receive an inheritance until she turns 25.
If setting up a trust is something that you think is right for your situation, you should do so with the help of a qualified professional.
A trust in no way replaces a last will and testament. A will is the only way you can name an executor and legal guardians for your children. Without a will, the state where you live will divide up your property and assets as it sees fit.
In fact, a will is the most important part of your estate plan. (Psst: Fabric lets you make a will for free online.)
Once you have a will, you might set up a trust because wills are subject to probate. That means creditors, other relatives or even your children could challenge what it says during the probate process.
A trust, while more complex to set up, can bypass the probate process down the road.
When you're thinking about how to write a simple will, the first thing you might think about is who to choose as your beneficiary.
On your last will and testament form, you can designate anyone (or multiple anyones) as your beneficiary. Beneficiaries can include members of your family, friends and even institutions like charities. If you want to leave money to a child under age 18, you’ll likely want to name a trustee to administer that money before the child is an adult.
In addition to naming beneficiaries of your will, you can also leave a bequest. That's a specific item or asset you’d like to leave to a person or entity. Consider speaking to an attorney and/or tax advisor about any bequests. For more insights, check out our guide to choosing a beneficiary.
While you’re free to name a family member or friend as the executor of the will, you can name anyone. The only requirements are that she's a legally competent adult and a US citizen or green card holder. Think about who will do the best job closing your accounts and fulfilling your wishes.
Some people choose to name a professional like a lawyer or financial planner as the executor of the will. That's especially true if they want their executor to have prior experience. Naming a pro can also help avoid burdening loved ones with an additional chore while they’re grieving.
We obviously can’t tell you how to choose something as deeply personal as guardianship over your child. That said, many people choose close family members. Think about naming back-up legal guardians in your last will and testament, to help make sure your child is covered if something happens to your first choice.
While not strictly necessary, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation with the legal guardian you'd like to appoint, to make sure he or she is up for the task.
You can even include a letter of explanation of your guardianship choice, in case a judge questions your choice of legal guardian. The judge’s job will be to seek out the best interests of the child, so if you’ve chosen someone contentious you might want to explain how this person is the best choice for providing stability and fulfilling the child’s needs, not to mention the child’s own preference and relationship with this person.
If your family has a complicated child custody situation, a will alone can't ensure you get your way. If you're trying to figure out legal guardianship in the midst of a child custody battle, we recommend you speak to a qualified attorney for advice specific to your situation.
Your last will and testament should address any provisions you need for your own situation. If you have any pets, especially ones with long lifespans (a horse, for example), you might consider including instructions.
When writing a will, you might note who should take care of your animals after you die, and what money they’ll use to do so.
Your last will and testament form can also include your wishes regarding funeral arrangements, too. Do you have a preference on where your funeral should be held? Who should officiate? What kind of ceremony it should be? The average funeral costs somewhere around $7,000. Where do you expect the money to come from?
Special note: If you’re transgender, make sure your will reflects your identity properly. If not, any conflicting pronouns could be considered a discrepancy and make it harder to execute your last will and testament.
You might also choose to pass down an ethical will, or a document that contains what you want your next of kin to know about you as a person, the traditions you hope they maintain and the morals you want them to cherish when you're gone and more.
If you were to pass away, what do you want to happen to your Facebook account? Does your spouse know the password to your laptop?
If you have particular wishes regarding your digital assets, you can include these instructions when writing a will. For example, you might tell your executor to close certain accounts or destroy specific files. Of course, you’ll need to provide your usernames and passwords to help him or her pull this off.
A simple will template may not necessarily prompt you to include these provisions, but your last will and testament form can include any instructions you think are important.
Each state has its own requirements for what makes a last will and testament legally binding. Generally, however, it's simple: You’ll need to be of sound mind when you sign the will and have at least two disinterested people witness your signature.
If your wishes have changed since you you initially filled out your online will and testament, you’ll need to update the document. Whenever you undergo a major life event, it’s a good idea to make sure your last will and testament continues to reflect your wishes.
Birth or adoption of a child
Marriage or divorce
Buying or selling a home
The death of one of your beneficiaries or executors
Major changes in your financial situation
Simply want to change something in your will because you feel like it? You’re free to do so.
You could do this through what’s called a “codicil,” which is a document that lets you make an amendment to the last will and testament you made previously. Changes could include updating who you want your executor to be, who you want as your beneficiary or anything else. You would need to attach the codicil to the will and sign it according to your state’s laws.
If you’ve made an online will through Fabric, you can make changes at any time by, essentially, just creating a new version of your will, then printing and signing it. Log in to meetfabric.com and simply choose “update will.”
Your last will and testament will be governed by the state where you keep your primary residence (or the state where you pay personal income tax).
It’s wise to familiarize yourself with any rules specific to the state where you live. For example, different states have different rules about holographic, or entirely handwritten, wills. Case in point: Texas generally recognizes holographic wills, while New York recognizes handwritten, holographic wills only in super specific cases.
Most states require two disinterested witnesses (meaning people who aren’t named in your will), but some also require notarization (like Louisiana).
Here’s a general rundown for each state:
Alabama: In Alabama, check out Title 43, Chapter 8. To make your last will and testament legally binding, you need two witnesses at the time of signing. You can’t sign your will electronically.
Alaska: You can find the statues in Title 13, Chapter 12. Your will must be written down, and signed by you or someone signing on your behalf in your presence. This signing needs to happen in front of two witnesses.
Arkansas: Take a look at Title 28. To make your will legally binding, sign it in front of at least two witnesses.
Colorado: Look to CRS Title 15 for details on the law. In Colorado, you can sign your will in the presence of two witnesses or do so in front of a notary public.
Delaware: Title 12 lays out the rules in Delaware. In this state, you can just sign your will and have it witnessed by two people.
Florida: Look to Chapter 732 in Florida. Execution of a valid last will and testament means signing in the presence of two witnesses.
Georgia: Check out Title 53. In Georgia, you can make your will binding by signing with two witnesses.
Idaho: Rules about executing a will in Idaho are found in Title 15. In this state, you need to sign your will with two witnesses.
Illinois: Read up on 755 ILCS 5 to learn the details in Illinois. This is another state in which you just need two witnesses to watch you sign your will.
Indiana: In Indiana, look to Title 29. As the testator, you’d need to sign in front of two witnesses. You’re also free to create a self-proving affidavit if you choose.
Iowa: Chapter 633 is where you should look in Iowa. As with other states, you need to sign with two witnesses.
Kansas: Check out Chapter 59 in Kansas. In this state, you need to sign in the presence of two witnesses, who also sign.
Kentucky: Kentucky lists its regulations in Chapter 394. To make your will legally valid, you should sign in the presence of two witnesses.
Louisiana: You can find the statutes in CC 1570. This is one of the few states that requires notarization—so get ready to sign your will in front of two witnesses plus a notary.
Maine: For more nuanced info, read Title 18-A, Article 2. The basic gist? Sign your will in front of two witnesses.
Maryland: You can read the relevant statutes in GAM, Estates and Trusts, Title 4. In Maryland, your will becomes legally binding when you sign it in front of two witnesses (who also sign it).
Massachusetts: Take a look at Chapter 190B. To make your will binding in Massachusetts, sign it in front of two witnesses.
Michigan: The rules in Michigan are laid out in Act 386 of 1998. In this state, you’d need to sign your will in the presence of two witnesses, who also sign to verify they witnessed it.
Minnesota: Chapter 524 is where you’d want to look in Minnesota. To make your will legally binding, you should sign in front of two witnesses.
Mississippi: You can find details in Title 91, Chapter 5. If the will is written and signed by the testator, you actually don’t need any witnesses. If it isn’t solely created and signed by the testator, then you do need two or more witnesses.
Missouri: Title XVI explains the statutes in Missouri. Essentially, you need to sign in front of two witnesses.
Montana: Check out Title 72 for details. In this state, you should sign your will in the presence of two witnesses, who also should sign.
Nebraska: Chapter 30 describes the rules in Nebraska. In this state, you should sign your will in the presence of two witnesses, who also sign it.
Nevada: You can read up on the statutes in Nevada Title 12, Chapter 133. In this state, you need to sign the last will and testament to make it legally binding, along with two witnesses.
New Hampshire: Relevant statutes can be found in Chapter 551. You should, in this state, sign your will in front of two credible witnesses, who should also sign.
New Jersey: In New Jersey, the rules are determined by Title 3B. You can legally execute your will in this state by signing it in front of two witnesses.
New Mexico: The laws in this state are governed by Chapter 45. This is another state in which you need to print and sign your will in front of two witnesses to make it legally binding.
New York: Wills in New York state must abide by the Estates, Powers, and Trusts provisions. To be legally valid, the signing of the will must be witnessed by two people who must also provide signatures.
North Carolina: The requirements for drafting a will in this state are contained in Chapter 31 the state statutes. The signing of the will must be witnessed and signed by two people to be valid.
North Dakota: In North Dakota Chapter 30.1-08 of the state statues describes the necessary requirements for a will. To execute the will legally you may sign the document before a Notary Public or at least two witnesses.
Ohio: Chapter 2107 of the Ohio state statutes lays out the necessary elements of a will in that state. You must then sign the document in front of two witnesses who must also sign the will for it to be legally valid.
Oklahoma: In Oklahoma, Title 84 details the requirements to draft a last will and testament. For legal execution, the will must be signed in the presence of two witnesses who are also signatories of the document. You may notarize it as well.
Oregon: Chapter 112 dictates the proper steps for drafting a will in Oregon. Two witnesses must be present at the signing of the will, and also sign the document themselves to make it legally valid.
Pennsylvania: In this state, wills must follow the instructions laid out in Title 20, Decedents, Estates and Fiduciaries. You must sign the will or sign by mark. The will can be signed by another person on your behalf so long as you are conscious and present for the signing. In this case, two other people must witness and sign the document.
Rhode Island: Rhode Island’s Title 33 provides the necessary requirements to be met in drafting a will. At least two witnesses must be present when the will is signed, and then add their signatures to the will.
South Carolina: The requirements for drafting a last will and testament in South Carolina can be found in Title 62 of the state’s statutes. In accordance with this statute, the will must be signed by you and two witnesses.
South Dakota: You can find the necessary details for drafting a valid will in South Dakota in Chapter 29A-2 of the state statutes. South Dakota’s rules about signatures and validity can be found here § 29A-2-502.
Tennessee: In this state, Title 32 is where you will find the necessary elements for drafting a will. The will must be signed by you and at least two witnesses, if the will is neither a nuncupative nor a holographic will.
Texas: Look to the Texas Probate Code for the requirements you must follow to draft a will in Texas. To be legally valid, the will must be signed by you and two witnesses who are at least 14 years old.
Utah: In this state your will must follow the guidelines set out in Title 75, and must also be signed in the presence of two witnesses who will then add their signatures.
Vermont: In Vermont, Title 14 explains what is needed for a last will and testament. To make your will legally valid, you must sign the document along with two credible witnesses.
Virginia: The elements necessary to create a will in this state are laid out in Title 64.2. To finalize, you must sign the will along with two witnesses.
Washington: Wills in Washington state must adhere to the instructions in Title 11. The document must then be signed by you and two witnesses to be valid.
West Virginia: Chapter 41 describes the elements necessary to complete a will. The will must contain your signature and that of two witnesses to be valid.
Wisconsin: All of the details to create a last will and testament in Wisconsin can be found in Chapter 583. The will is made legally valid by the testator adding their signature along with two witnesses.
Wyoming: In this state, Title 2 outlines how to draft a will. Upon completion, it you must sign it along with two witnesses.
If you have specific questions about your state’s requirements, we suggest you reach out to a qualified attorney.
Will vs. Last Will and Testament
The term “will,” as we use it, is interchangeable with “last will and testament.” Both refer to a document that determines what happens to your property if you die. It lays out whom your belongings should go to, how and who’s in charge of making that happen.
Making a will also gives you the opportunity to name an executor (the person responsible for distributing your assets) and a legal guardian for your children.
Will vs. Living Will
There is, however, a major difference between this and a living will.
A living will, which is also sometimes known as a healthcare directive, lets your loved ones know about any health care decisions that you’d like to be made while you’re alive, in the event that you're unable to communicate these wishes when the time comes.
Short answer? Probably, yes.
Having a will clears a lot of red tape for your friends and family. It doesn't even have to take that long. Fabric's researchers found that more than 75 percent of customers created a will online in under ten minutes.
Here are six reasons you might need a will.
It's important to store your will somewhere safe, where your survivors know how to find it. That could be a safe, or a high shelf in a cabinet, or the county clerk's office. The choice is yours, as long as you give where to store your will some careful thought.
You can name (or exclude) whomever you want and divide your estate however works for you.
Close relatives like a spouse and kids are often the top choices for beneficiaries. You don’t need to stop at close relatives, though. You can name friends, a business partner or even charitable organizations as the beneficiary of your will.
If you have questions about writing your will, it’s a good idea to speak to an estate planning attorney, especially if you’d like to set up complex instructions. If you don’t have the time or money to meet with a lawyer right now, however, Fabric’s simple online will can help you document your wishes for free, in minutes. Fabric will also provide steps on how to make the document legally binding.
Check out our guide to naming your will beneficiary.
Being named an executor of a will is a big honor, but it’s also a big responsibility. If you’ve been named the executor of an estate, duties include making sure all of your loved one’s belongings are collected and distributed in accordance with their wishes.
We’ve laid out seven steps to executing an estate.
There’s really no wrong way to ask someone to serve as a legal guardian for your kids. Most people will be flattered. What bigger compliment could you give someone than entrusting him or her with your child’s future?
Read our four steps for popping the question.
Most people would benefit from both a payable on death designation and a will. POD accounts are better for quick cash for people handling your final affairs or counting on money for bills, while your will lets you get into clearer detail about the more nuanced aspects of settling your estate.
Dive deeper into how you should think about a POD account vs. a will.
Probate is the legal process of administering a person’s estate after their death. If you have a last will and testament, the probate process will involve proving that your will is legally valid, executing your instructions and paying applicable taxes.
Having a clearly written will is one way to make the probate process easier on your loved ones. After all, your will doesn’t only specify who should inherit what. It also designates who you’d like to take care of your kids if both parents were to pass away, plus the executor who should fulfill the instructions in your will.
Learn more about the probate process.
A will explains how you’d like to pass on your assets. Power of attorney documents, meanwhile, let someone make legal and financial decisions for you if you can’t. We’ve done the research to help you understand the different kinds of power of attorney, and which may make sense for your situation.
You might choose to put a power of attorney in place for yourself, just in case. Additionally, if you have aging parents or other relatives, you might encourage them to set up power of attorney while they’re still able.
Read our rundown of the different types of power of attorney.
The short answer is yes. A trust in no way replaces a will. A will is the only way you can name an executor and legal guardians for your children. Without a will, the state where you live will divide up your property and assets as it sees fit.
That said, having a will and a trust can help ensure that your money not only goes to whom you choose, but also in the manner you choose. Putting money in a trust lets you pass property to someone in a structured way, where you can impose rules. For example, you might say that your beneficiary can’t use these funds to pay off debt. Or, you might impose rules on how old the beneficiary needs to be before she gains control over the money.
Here’s the scoop on trust funds.
Creating a robust estate plan helps to ensure your wishes are carried out and that all parties get their fair share. While every blended family has its own unique circumstances, there are three main areas to think about:
Passing on assets to minor children
Dividing your estate among family members
In cases like these, you’ll almost certainly want to speak to a qualified attorney to help you grapple with all the nuances.
Yes, actually. One way to do this is through a legacy letter, also known as an ethical will. You know how a last will and testament passes down your material belongings? An ethical will conveys the ethics and values you hope to pass down.
This often includes advice, treasured memories and reminiscences about important life events. It can contain your ruminations on regrets, forgiveness, love, mentors, cultural beliefs, morals and ethics, ancestry and how you would like to be remembered.
If this sounds interesting to you, check out our guide to writing an ethical will.
Filling out your last will and testament form is essential, but it’s not the only document you’re likely to need. You might also think about:
An advanced health care directive or medical power of attorney: This names someone you trust to make decisions about your health (would you want to be on life support?) if you’re not able to do so yourself.
Living will: Similarly, a living will records your wishes for your medical care if you become incapacitated. Are you religiously opposed to blood transfusions? Do you have specific rules you’d like your caretakers to follow?
Durable power of attorney: A durable power of attorney names someone to manage your finances if you’re incapacitated and can’t do so yourself.
You may want to consult a lawyer if you have questions about your specific situation. This is especially important if your last wishes are complex or if your estate is worth more than $1 million.
Writing a will may not be the ideal of Sunday fun, but the relief you’ll feel when you’re done will last you weeks, months and years to come.
Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.
This article is meant to provide general information and not to provide any specific legal advice or to serve as the basis for any decisions.
Fabric isn’t a law firm and we aren’t licensed to practice law or to provide any legal advice. If you do need legal advice for your specific situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney and/or tax professional.
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