A last will and testament is a legal document outlining your wishes for how your property and affairs are to be handled when you pass away, and how you wish your funeral to be conducted. It is also commonly called a “will” or “last will.”
It should not be confused with a living will, which conveys your wishes for your end-of-life medical treatment.
What is a Last Will and Testament?
A last will and testament is a legal document that outlines what should be done with your property and other affairs after you pass away.
You can leave charitable contributions and other bequests by including them in your last will. Finally, you can describe how you want your funeral conducted and set aside money for it.
To make or witness a will or serve as an executor, you must be old enough. This is 18+ in most states. A notable exception is Georgia (14+). In certain situations, you can make a will when you’re younger — for instance, if you’re in the armed forces or married.
If you die without a will — known as dying intestate — your state’s laws define who your property goes to and who cares for your children. You need a last will if you want to make your own choice about what happens to your property and loved ones after you pass away.
How to Write a Will
If you want to write your own last will and testament, you need to understand the following key terms:
- Testator (or testatrix for women): you, the person making the will
- Probate: the legal process carried out in court after you, the testator, pass away — specifically to assess your last will, and make sure it’s valid
- Executor (or executrix for women): the person you name to settle your affairs and make sure your wishes, as outlined in your will, are carried out
- Guardian: the person you want to look after your children, elders, and/or pets if your spouse is also deceased or cannot care for them
- Beneficiary: the people or organizations who you want to receive your assets
- Assets: money, property, and other items of value
- Witness: someone mentally fit and of legal age who signs your last will and can verify its authenticity
To write your will — for example, by using our free will template — simply fill in the blanks with your information. You’ll need to have this simple will template witnessed and notarized according to your state’s laws for it to come into legal effect.
When writing your own, there are several steps you need to follow:
Appoint an Executor
The executor is the person you want to settle your affairs and make sure your last will is fully carried out.
Your will should also name a backup executor in case your first-choice executor passes away first or can’t serve for some other reason (for instance, because they disappear or suffer from a mental health condition).
You can arrange for the executor to be paid for their time. This payment can be a percentage of your estate or a flat or hourly fee.
A guardian takes responsibility for your dependent minors (children) or elders if you and your spouse are deceased, or if your spouse cannot care for them after you pass away.
You can also use your last will and testament to appoint a pet caretaker and set aside money for your pet’s care.
Identify Assets and Beneficiaries
Your assets are your money and property. They can be either real assets (for instance, tangible personal property, land, and houses) or digital assets (such as online accounts, including social media accounts and domain names, and money in various online accounts).
Identify all of your assets in your last will and testament and what you want to be done with them after you pass away.
Beneficiaries are people and organizations who you want to receive your assets. Most commonly, these are family and friends, but they can also be charitable organizations and other institutions you donate your assets to (like a university or church).
Before your assets are distributed to your beneficiaries, debtors collect what you owe them from your estate. The remainder is your residuary estate.
Also, note that only assets owned solely by you at the time of your death are included in your estate.
For example, a joint bank account in the name of you and your spouse will not be part of your estate, as it becomes your spouse’s property. This also applies to homes, automobiles, land, life insurance, and any asset that includes more than one owner on the title or that specifies in the title who the beneficiaries will be.
Plan and Pay for Your Funeral
When you fill out your will form, outline your funeral wishes. Include how and where you want it held, and allocate money for it.
Also, if you expect significant medical expenses in the days before your death, put aside funds to cover them.
Name a Witness and Sign
To make your last will and testament official, it must be signed by both you and at least two witnesses (the number depends on the law in your state).
If you want to change your will, you can either create a new one, or amend your existing one by using a codicil to your will.
Last Will and Testament Sample
In this simple will sample, the testator (writer of the will), Marlon Lee, leaves most of his estate to his spouse. If his spouse passes away first, Lee’s estate will be divided equally between their three children, according to his will.
Additionally, Lee leaves particular items to specific people in his last will — such as his jewelry collection.
You can use the following will sample to learn how to write your own last will.
Who Needs a Last Will and Testament?
You generally need a will if you expect to own property, have children, or have any money at the time of your death. Create one if you:
- Travel a lot or live abroad
- Changed residences or purchased a new home
- Serve in the military
- Came into new wealth, assets, or property
- Recently married or divorced
- Are a parent or grandparent
- Are a pet owner
What If I Don’t Write a Last Will?
If you don’t have a valid last will, you put yourself and your loved ones at risk. For example:
- You have no control over who gets your property — the laws of your state decide what happens to your estate. This usually means your spouse, children, parents, and siblings get your property (in that order)
- Your children might not receive their inheritance, which goes to a second spouse instead
- Your relatives dispute who receives what, causing rifts in your family
- You have no say over your funeral, including what happens to your remains and how much money is spent
- The courts appoint an unwanted guardian for your children, elderly parents, and pets
- Your digital property and online accounts are managed by someone who you might not trust or even know
Everyone should consider having a last will and testament as part of their estate plan to take care of their property and other assets.
The American Bar Association says you don’t have to use a lawyer to write your will. A will is legally valid if it meets your state’s requirements.
If, however, you have extensive wealth or complicated concerns, a lawyer can help you navigate the legal and tax implications of your bequests and preferences.