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Wills 101

What You Can And Cannot Do In A Will

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In a legally valid Will, you can:

  • Name your beneficiaries including who gets your property, and how much of it they get. (You can even make provision for a pet - though not by leaving money directly to the pet).
  • Name a Guardian for your minor children. To learn more, see How To Choose A Guardian For Children.
  • Name a Personal Representative/Executor: This is the person who will administer your estate. For more information, see Choosing a Personal Representative/Executor.
  • Designate what will happen to your assets if both you and your spouse die at the same time.
  • Designate how you want your taxes and debts


While there are many things you can do with a Will, there are also many that you can't. Here are some of the things you won't be able accomplish in your Will:

  • Leave Funeral Instructions: Wills often won't be read until days or weeks after a death. Sometimes, they can't be located immediately -- although this shouldn't be a problem if you follow our suggestions about Storing Your Will. Instead, prepare separate written funeral instructions. Preplanning saves a lot of money and emotional stress at a difficult time. To learn more, see Funerals and Funeral Planning.
  • Leave Money to Pets: Contrary to popular belief, you cannot leave money to pets. You can leave money to a person or entity to care for your pets. Some states even allow you to set up a trust for pets. For more information, see Planning For The Care Of Your Pets. NOTE: Be sure to arrange for immediate care for your pet.  Wills are not effective until they go through probate.
  • Put Conditions on Gifts which are against social policy: You can't put a condition on a gift which your state considers to be against social policy -- the way society thinks people should and should not behave. For example, it may not be permitted to provide that your house goes to your daughter if she doesn't get married, or to your son if he gets a divorce, or to a friend if she changes her religion.As another example, you cannot leave money for an illegal purpose or to an illegal organization. However, you can generally make gifts contingent about things states find acceptable, such as a gift to your grandson if he goes to college. If you want to make a conditional gift, be sure to check first with a lawyer. For tips on finding a lawyer, click here. For choosing one, click here.
  • Reduce Estate Taxes: Wills generally are not effective in reducing your estate taxes. There are alternatives for reducing estate taxes. See Gift and Estate Taxes.
  • Name a Beneficiary for:
    • Property held in joint tenancy with a right of survivorship with someone else. In these situations, the property automatically passes to that other person no matter what your Will says. To learn more, see Will Substitutes.
    • Property in a living trust. The trust controls what happens to the property in the trust -- not your Will.
    • Proceeds of a life insurance policy for which you've already named a beneficiary, unless your estate is the beneficiary.
    • Money in retirement plans, unless you name your estate as beneficiary of the retirement plan.
    • Money in a bank account which is registered "payable on death" to, or "in trust for"someone else.
    • NOTE: 
      • For the same reasons that the above items cannot be affected by your Will, they can be used as ways to avoid probate. See Probate and Avoiding Probate.
      • For additional legal consequences which flow form the way an asset is owned, see the next section.
  • Disinherit a Spouse: You generally cannot legally completely disinherit a spouse. See Writing A Will.
  • In some states, you cannot disinherit a child. If your state does permit disinheriting a childe, and you do not mention it in your will, the child may still have a claim against your assets.

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