A will is an important legal document to protect your loved ones and express your final wishes. But before you start writing a will, there are a few things to organize beforehand and some procedures to follow after. Use this will checklist to cover your bases.
Table of Contents
Make a List of Your Property and Assets
Think of everything you own, including real estate, personal property, motor vehicles, bank accounts, life insurance, and retirement accounts. Decide which items to give through your will and which assets to transfer by other methods.
A will is one of several ways to transfer your property and assets after your death. It is not always the best or cheapest way to transfer your property because a will must go through the judicial process known as probate. Probate requires court fees and can take months, or years for complicated estates, to complete.
Some property transfers outside your will, for example, transfer on death bank accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and property held in a living trust. Assets transferred by these methods do not go through probate unless they have a defect, such as no named beneficiary. For these types of property, check that you have beneficiary designations and backup beneficiaries in case your first choice doesn’t survive you.
Gather Important Documents
Making a property list is important, but it also is wise to organize your financial affairs and collect your important documents. These documents help you think about your assets and who you want to receive them.
Important documents to collect are:
- Birth Certificates
- Property Deeds
- Mortgage Information
- List of Bank and Financial Account and Account Numbers
- Life Insurance Policies
- Vehicle Titles
After you organize 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 makes it easier for your personal representative or executor to manage your estate through the probate process.
Determine Your Beneficiaries and Bequests
A beneficiary is a person or organization that receives a gift of property through a will. This gift of property is also known as a bequest. As the testator (one who makes a will), you can use a will to make bequests to anyone you choose, including charities and schools.
Identify which items you want to give each beneficiary. You may want to give a sum of money to a caretaker, real estate to a relative, and sentimental gifts like artwork or jewelry to a close friend. Include your beneficiaries’ full names in your will so your personal representative can identify them.
To avoid fights between family members, you should clearly list who will receive family heirlooms and sentimental items. It is easy to divide money in four ways, but it is impossible to divide your grandmother’s antique necklace.
You can list these sentimental items directly in your will. Many states allow a testator to have a separate list of tangible personal property items that they can update without drafting a new will. Your will must mention that it has a personal property memorandum or addendum attached if you choose to have one. This personal property list cannot include real estate or intangible items like money or financial accounts.
And don’t forget your pets! In your will, you can designate a caregiver for your pet and leave a sum of money for their care. Although you may feel your pet is a family member, they are property in the eyes of the law.
Start on your will today!
Choose a Personal Representative
You name a personal representative or executor in your will to manage your estate administration. They handle communication with your beneficiaries and communicate with the probate court. They have several duties to fulfill, including:
- Notifying beneficiaries, creditors, and government agencies of the testator’s death
- Selling the estate’s property
- Paying off debts, credit cards, and tax obligations for the testator’s estate
- Distributing bequests to beneficiaries
You should choose someone trustworthy, responsible, and organized as your personal representative. They do not need an MBA but can understand paperwork and deadlines. They can always hire an accountant for help with estate taxes or a lawyer for legal advice. Additionally, it is a good idea to name a backup or successor personal representative if your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve. Before you name someone as a personal representative in your will, let them know you want them as 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 personal representative. The job is sometimes time-consuming and difficult. Consider whether they have the time and patience to manage your estate.
If you have significant assets or don’t want to ask family or friends, you can name an attorney, accountant, or financial institution as your personal representative. However, you will want to confirm their willingness to serve and know their fees before listing them in your will.
Choose a Guardian and Trustee for 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, manage your child’s health care and education, and provide food and housing for your child.
When choosing a guardian, you should consider the following:
- Is the person physically capable of caring for your child?
- Does your child have a good relationship with the guardian?
- 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 the assets they receive through a will. This person is often called a trustee. Like your personal representative, choose someone who is trustworthy and responsible with money.
The same person can be both a guardian and a trustee. If you have a sister who is an attorney or accountant, she might be a great choice as a 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.
Make a Will!
Now that you have organized your papers, listed your assets and beneficiaries, selected your personal representative, guardians, and trustees, you are ready to make a will. You can save time and money using online legal forms to create a will if you have a simple estate. Or if you have significant assets, children, or dependents with special needs, or want a living trust, consult a local estate planning attorney.
Make Your Will Valid
To make a will legally valid, you must follow your state’s requirements for will execution. In most states, you will need two witnesses to watch you sign the will and affirm with their signature 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 declare it as 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 a self-proving affidavit for a will. This allows a probate court to accept the will’s validity without requiring your witnesses to appear in court to affirm that the testator signed the will.
Check your state’s laws for their requirements to make a will valid.
Store Your Will in a Secure Location
A will is useless if no one can find it. You must ensure that it is in a safe place but also 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 locked desk drawer at home, a safe, or another secure place. Let trusted family members know where to locate and access it. Avoid placing your will in a safe deposit box at a bank. Your family may be unable to get to it without a court order.
Consider Other Estate Planning Needs
A will is a great start to protect your family. However, it is only effective after you die. Consider other estate planning documents to help you and your family when you are alive but unable to manage your affairs. A comprehensive estate plan includes a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney, and an advance medical directive or living will.
Whether you use this checklist to draft your own will or prepare for a meeting with an attorney, you will be organized and ready to get it done.