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Making a Will Checklist

Drafting your own will is not as simple as finding a form and filling it out. There are several steps you should take before and after making your will to ensure that your will accomplishes everything you want.

This checklist will help you ask necessary questions before you create your will and know what to do after you draft it. If you do hire an attorney to write your will, reviewing these steps will help you prepare for your first meeting.

Make a List of Property and Assets That You Want To Include in Your Will

Think of everything that you own, including real estate, personal property, motor vehicles, bank accounts, life insurance, and retirement accounts. Decide which items you want to give through your will and which assets will be transferred by other methods.

A will is one of several ways that you can transfer your assets after your death. It is not always the best or cheapest way to transfer your property because a will usually must go through the judicial process known as probate. Probate requires court fees and can take months, or years for complicated estates, to complete.

Other methods for transferring property and money after death include trustsretirement accounts, and life insurance policies. Assets transferred by these methods will not go through probate unless they have a defect. For life insurance and retirement accounts, you should make sure you have listed the beneficiaries you want.

Collect Important Documents To Help Create Your Will

Making a list of property is important, but it also is wise to collect important documents. These documents can help you think about the assets you have and who you want to give them to.

Important documents to collect are:

  • Birth certificates
  • Deeds
  • Mortgage information
  • Bank and financial account numbers
  • Life insurance policies
  • Titles to your vehicles

After you collect these documents, you should keep them in a safe place and let trusted family members or friends know where they are. Having them readably available upon your death will make it easier for your property to pass to your beneficiaries quickly.

Choose Your Beneficiaries and What You Would Like Them To Receive

A beneficiary of a will is a person or organization who will receive a gift of property through the will. Property given through a will is also known as a bequest. The person creating the will is known as the testator. As the testator, you can use a will to make bequests to anyone you choose, including charities and schools.

You can choose which items you give to each beneficiary. You may want to give money to a caretaker, real estate to a relative, and sentimental bequests like artwork or jewelry to a close friend.

To avoid fights between family members, you should clearly list who will receive family heirlooms and sentimental items. It is easy to divide money four ways, but it is impossible to divide your grandmother's antique necklace.

You can list these sentimental items in your will. Many states allow a testator to have a separate list of tangible personal property items that they can update without having to draft a new will. If you choose to have one and your state law allows it, your will must mention that it has a personal property addendum or memorandum. This personal property list cannot include real estate or intangible items like money or financial accounts.

Choose an Executor

When a will goes through probate, an executor, also known as a personal representative, is the person who manages the estate and communicates with the probate court about the estate's administration. The executor has several duties to fulfill, including:

  • Notifying beneficiaries, creditors, and government agencies of the testator's death
  • Paying debts and taxes for the testator's estate
  • Distributing bequests to beneficiaries
  • Selling the estate's property

You should choose someone who is responsible to be executor and pick a successor executor if your first choice becomes unavailable after your death. Before you name them in your will, let them know you want them to be your executor and find out if they have any reservations about serving.

If you have a family member who makes poor personal and financial choices, do not name them as your executor. Being an executor can be time-consuming and difficult. Consider whether your choice has the time and patience to manage your estate.

If you have significant assets or want to avoid family conflicts, you can name an attorney, accountant, or financial institution as your trustee. However, you will want to confirm that they are willing to serve as your executor and what their fees are before listing them in your will.

Choose a Guardian and Trustee for Your Minor Children

If you have minor children, you must decide who will be their caregiver and who will manage their money. The caregiver is known as a guardian. The guardian will have legal custody of your child and will manage your child's healthcare and education and provide food and housing for your child.

When choosing a guardian, you should consider the following:

  • Will the person you choose be physically able to care for your child?
  • Does your child have a good relationship with the guardian and the guardian's spouse?
  • Do you approve of the way the guardian will raise your children?
  • Will it be too much of a burden on the guardian to raise your child?

Minor children also need someone to manage assets they receive through a will. This person is often called a trustee. Like an executor, this person should be trustworthy and responsible with money.

The same person can be both guardian and trustee. If you have a sister who is an attorney or accountant, she might be a great choice as trustee of your child's assets. She could be a good choice as guardian too, but you might want to designate someone else as your child's guardian if she is not good with children.

Execute the Will Properly

For a will to be legally valid, it must be executed properly. This means it must be signed with the number of witnesses required by your state's laws. In most states, you will need two witnesses to watch you sign the will and affirm with their signatures that you are the testator who signed the will. A witness must be an adult and should not be a beneficiary of your will.

The witnesses do not need to know the contents of the will. They only need to know that you are declaring that it is your last will and testament.

Finally, you should have a notary public present to notarize the will. Notaries are not legal requirements for a valid will, but most states have what is called a self-proving affidavit for a will. This allows a probate court to accept the validity of the will without requiring your witnesses to appear in court to affirm that you signed the will.

Store the Will in a Safe Place

A will is useless if no one can find it. You must ensure that it is in a safe place but also a place that is easily accessible. Some law firms will store wills for their clients. Local courts can keep wills on file for testators.

You also can put it in a desk drawer at home or another secure place and let trusted family members know where to locate it. Avoid using a safe deposit box or other places that are difficult to access, such as a safe that only you know the combination to.

Have an Attorney Review Your Will

Even if you draft your own will, it is a good idea to have an estate planning attorney licensed in your state review the will. An attorney can let you know if your will complies with your state's laws.

An attorney can also advise you whether you should consider a comprehensive estate plan that includes additional estate planning documents, such as a trust, advance directive, and power of attorney.

Additional Resources

Next Steps

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to help you ensure that your loved ones are cared for and your wishes are honored.

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