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How to Write a Last Will and Testament [Step-by-Step Guide]

Kaycie Tyll

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 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, but it can also be surprisingly simple.

What Is a Last Will and Testament?

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.

What Happens if I Die Without Making a Will?

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. Typically, 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.

How to Write a Will

  1. Decide whether you want to hire a lawyer or write your own will online (Fabric, for example, offers free wills online).

  2. Identify your beneficiaries (the people who will inherit the things you've left behind).

  3. Choose a legal guardian for your child (that's the person who would take care of your kids if worst came to worst).

  4. Decide on an executor for your estate (that's the person who's tasked with fulfilling your wishes).

  5. Consider other wishes, like who should take care of your pets if you pass, or any particular instructions about your funeral.

  6. Sign your last will and testament.

  7. Find two witnesses (people who aren't listed in your will) and ask them to sign, too.

  8. Get your will notarized, if your state requires it (most don't).

When you're learning how to write a will, one of the most important things is to simply get started. Whether or not you use our free will forms, you’ll need several pieces of information when writing a will:

  • 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.

Who Should Be the Beneficiary of My Will?

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.

How to Write a Simple Will: Executor of the Will

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.

Choosing a Legal Guardian

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. You might want to make sure he or she is up fo 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.

Trust vs. Will

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.

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.

Pets, Funeral Arrangements and Other Considerations

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.

Thinking About Your Digital Assets

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.

Making Your Last Will and Testament Legally Binding

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.

How to Write a Will: When the Law Varies by State

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 witnesses, but some also require notarization (like Colorado and Louisiana).

If you have specific questions about your state’s requirements, we suggest you reach out to a qualified attorney.

When to Review or Change Your Will

If your wishes have changed since you you initially filled out your last will and testament form, 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.

For instance:

-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.

Key Documents to Have Alongside Your Last Will and Testament

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.

And for the Peanut Gallery . . .

If you’re planning to name someone as the executor of your will or your child’s legal guardian, you’ll likely want to tell her beforehand.

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.

Ready to check out Fabric's free online will to help protect your loved ones? Get started now.

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.

Fabric Insurance Agency, LLC offers a mobile experience for people on-the-go who want an easy and fast way to purchase life insurance.

Kaycie Tyll

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