A Last Will and Testament is a legal document outlining your wishes for how your property and affairs are handled when you pass away and how you wish your funeral to be conducted. It is also commonly called a “Will” or “Last Will.”
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.
You must be old enough to make or witness a will or serve as an executor. This is 18+ in most states. A notable exception is Georgia (14+). You can make a Will when you’re younger in certain situations, such as 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 to choose what happens to your property and loved ones after you pass away.
A will can be created as an alternative or in addition to a revocable living trust. You must understand the differences between a will vs. trust and which is right for you.
How to Make My Own Will
If you want to write your own Last Will and Testament, you need to understand the following key terms:
- Testator (or testatrix): you, the person making the Will
- Probate: the legal process carried out in court after the testator passes away — specifically to assess your Last Will and make sure it’s valid
- Executor (or executrix): 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
Can I make my own last will?
You can make your own Last Will. Especially if you have a small estate, you won’t need to go through a lawyer to create a simple, legally binding last will.
However, you might want to consult a lawyer if you still have questions. For example, if you think that your Will might be contested.
To write your Will — for example, by using our free template — fill in the blanks with your information. You’ll need to have this form witnessed and notarized according to your state’s laws to have any legal effect.
What to include in a Last Will?
You will also have to include the following:
- Personal information about you
- Appointment of an executor
- Assets and beneficiaries
- Designated guardians
- Signed witnesses
Appointment of an Executor
The executor is the person you want to settle your affairs with and ensure your last will is entirely carried out.
The document should also name a backup executor if your first-choice executor passes away or can’t serve. For instance, 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.
Assets and Beneficiaries
Your assets are your money and property. They can be real assets (tangible personal property, land, and houses) or digital assets (such as online accounts, social media accounts, domain names, and money in various online accounts).
Identify 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 from who you want to receive your assets. These are usually family and friends, but they can also be charitable organizations and other institutions you donate your assets (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 your death are included in your estate.
For example, a joint bank account in your name 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 an asset that includes more than one owner on the title or that specifies in the title who the beneficiaries will be.
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 to appoint a pet caretaker and set aside money for your pet’s care.
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.
Also, if you expect significant medical expenses in the days before your death, put aside funds to cover them.
To make your Last Will form official, it must be signed by both you and at least two witnesses (the number depends on the law in your state).
State laws also differ on who can witness the last Will. Still, typically they must be a disinterested party, of legal age, and of “sound mind.”
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.
How to Write a Last Will
Step 1 – Add personal information
In the document’s header, you must fill in your name (the person for whom the last Will is being created). Then, add your address and details about your spouse and children.
Step 2 – Add executor information.
Who will carry out the terms of the Will? Depending on your state, there might be restrictions regarding who can legally be an executor. However, all states require the executor to be 18 years old.
You should appoint a successor executor if your first choice cannot fulfill its duties.
Step 3 – Include executor compensation and powers.
Mention if you want the executor to be entitled to any compensation or if they should have any specific powers.
In this section, you can provide as much detail as you want about how the executor should be paid or leave it to their discretion.
Step 4 – Specify the beneficiaries of your assets.
Be it personal property, cash, or remaining estate; you need to include the person’s name and the specific assets they will receive.
After all property, expenses, and debt has been distributed, you can assign a beneficiary to the remaining estate.
Step 5 – Appoint guardians.
In this section, you’ll point guardians for minors, elders, or pets. You can also designate funds to ease the burden on the guardian.
Step 6 – Assign witnesses and signatures.
Check your state laws to determine how many witnesses you need and who can’t legally serve as a witness where you live. Witnesses must sign the document indicating that you are of sound mind and that they witnessed you sign it willingly (without undue influence).
Step 7 – Add a self-proving affidavit.
A self-proving affidavit is a sworn statement that proves Will’s validity. It is signed by you and your witnesses in front of a notary. The last Will does not need a self-proving affidavit to be legal, but having one will significantly speed up the probate process for your family.
Last Will and Testament Samples
Here you can get a free Last Will template to get started. Just download our blank form in PDF or Word and print it out.
You can also use our document builder to create your custom 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 your death. Consider creating or updating your Will if you:
- Travel a lot or live abroad
- Recently moved 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.
According to the American Bar Association, 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 your bequests’ legal and tax implications and preferences.