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Preparing to write a Will starts with three basics:

  • Gathering information about your assets 
  • Making decisions about the people or entities to whom you want to leave your assets
  • Identifying the person, people and/or entity to be in charge of making what you say in your Will happens. (This is known as administering your estate.)

As you think about what to do in your Will, standard advice for everyone is to write your Will as if you will die very soon.  Assuming you will die soon for these purposes has nothing to do with your actual health condition. Wills are written for the facts as they are today.  A Will can be updated as circumstances change.

For additional information, see the following.  If you are meeting with a lawyer, having this information ready will save you time and money. If you are writing a Will yourself, it will go much more smoothly.

NOTE: In this article, we refer to the person who will carry out the wishes contained in your Will as a personal representative/executor. We use this method to avoid confusion in case your state refers to the person as a "personal representative" or as an "executor."

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What To Think About If You Want To Leave People Specific Assets

Think about each gift carefully. Keep in mind that once an asset belongs to a person, he or she can do anything she or he wants with it.

If any of the assets are used as collateral to repay a debt (such as a house which has a mortgage on it, or furniture which is being purchased on an installment plan), decide whether you want your estate to pay off the debt so the person gets the asset free and clear, or the person receives the property subject to the debt . Unless you state to the contrary, the asset will pass to your heir subject to the debt. If you want the asset to pass without debt, think about where the money will come from to repay the debt.

If you want to leave specific items that are not valuable in the financial sense to different people (such as a  pocket watch that you inherited from your grandfather or your Aunt Gladys' china), consider the following alternatives:

  • Make those bequests in your will to a person you trust. In a letter that you sign, ask that person to give each asset to a specifcally named person. For example, you have a pocket watch that you inherited from your grandfather or your Aunt Gladys' cast iron pans. Give all such property to XYZ. In a letter addressed to XYZ, tell him or her what you want done with each item. (You only have to date and sign the letter. It does not need to be witnessed or notarized.)
    • NOTE:
    • If the assets you are asking a person to give to another person are worth more than the amount allowed during the current year, the person making the gift will have to consider paying a gift tax. To learn more, see Gift Taxes.
    • Let the person to whom you are leaving the group of assets know what you are doing to be sure she or he agrees to the plan.
    • In some states, if the Will states that there is a letter which describes what happens to personal property, the letter can be binding if it is incorporated into the will by mentioning it  in the Will.
  • Put a colored or other sticker under each of your personal possessions with the name of the person to whom you want to leave objects. If an item has more than one sticker, let the people know they will have to negotiate. Don't use stickers that can easily fall off or be removed, such as post-it's. 

Information to Gather To Prepare For Writing A Will

To be sure your Will covers all the necessary bases, collect at least the following information about your finances and your beneficiaries:

  • The full names, addresses, and birth dates of your spouse, children and any other beneficiaries.
  • If you already know the identity of the person who will make sure what you provide in the will happens (your personal representative/executor), include his or her full name, address and telephone numbers. (If you don't  know who you want to act as personal representative/executor, see Choosing A Personal Representative/Executor).
  • The following information about your bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and other financial assets:
    • The name of the bank or company involved.
    • The account number.
    • The name in which the account is registered. (If there is another person named as co-owner of an asset, check to seewhether the title is registered in such a way that you can leave your share to someone else or whether it automatically passes to the other named person on your death. For information about various forms of ownership and what happens at death, click here.
    • The amount in the account.
  • A list of your retirement accounts, including who is named as beneficiary and the current amounts in each account.
  • For each life insurance and annuity policy:
    • Name of insurance company.
    • Policy number.
    • Owner (with individual policies, the insured is generally the owner).
    • Beneficiaries.
    • Amount of the death benefit.
  • Information about, and approximate market value of, any other major assets such as antiques, CD collections, cars, real estate or a business you own.
  • A list of your debts, including the amount and to whom payable.
  • Copies of old Wills, trust agreements, divorce decrees, and pre- or post-nuptial agreements.

To help you in this process, we provide a worksheet you can print. See: Wills- Worksheet.

How To Decide Who Your Beneficiaries Will Be And What Each Will Receive

When thinking about who your beneficiary(ies) will be, your first response may be to assume that they will be the people that society or your family or another group to which you belong expects you to name as beneficiary.

In reality, you do not have to be limited by custom or what other people think you should do. What  is in your Will is private until it is delivered to a probate court. By then, you will not  be here. Please do not take this to mean that we are suggesting that you do not leave assets to a spouse or children. We are only suggesting that you think through the question of your beneficiary(ies) rather than assume.

Another factor to consider is how to distribute your property to your beneficiaries. There is no right or wrong way to distribute your property, only what works for you.  For example:

  • You may not want to leave assets or an equal amount of assets to family members with whom you are not close. 
  • You may have a lifelong friend you would like to show your affection and appreciation by leaving the person a substantial amount of assets. 
  • You can leave property in a trust so that an asset is administered by another person for your beneficiar y.

NOTE: If any of your potential beneficiaries are having marital problems, check the local law to find out if the other person will have a claim against the asset you are considering leaving to that person. If there can be a claim, consider leaving the asset for the person in a trust. To learn about trusts, click here

How To Choose A Personal Representative/Executor/Personal Administrator

Your Personal Representative is the person who will gather your assets, administer them as required, and distribute your assets.

There can be more than one Personal Representative.  If you use more t han one person, it is advisable to include a provision in your Will about how decisions are made. For instance: "All decisions to be made by my Personal Representative shall require the approval of both of them." 

In addition to a named Personal Representative, it is advisable to name one or more substitutes in case the person you name dies before you, doesn't qualify, or stops acting in the role.

  • For information about personal representatives/executor in general, click here.
  • For information about how to choose a personal representative/execut or, click here.
  • For information about qualities to look for in a personal reprsentative/executor, click here

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A Few Things To Think About If You Have Minor Children

Who will take care of your minor children?

  • For the sake of your minor children, think about who will provide for their care and upbringing if the other parent is deceased or if you believe the other parent is not competent to make personal or financial decisions for the child. Consider the following alternatives:
  • Alternatives include:
    • The appointment of a guardian. A guardian is the person who manages your children's property or takes care of your children. The same person can take care of a child's property and the child -- or you can use separate people.
    • To learn about a guardian for your children, click here
    • To learn how to choose a guardian for your children, click here.
  • Placing the children in a foster home. For information about foster care, click here.
  • Placing the children for adoption

What to do if you want to leave assets to minor children

  • Unless the property you leave to a minor is of little value, an adult will be required to manage the property until the minor reaches adulthood. The age at which a child reaches adulthood varies from state to state. It ranges from age 18 to 21. 
  • Alternatives for leaving property to a minor include the following:
    • Name a guardian
      • Although the court will appoint a guardian for a minor's property rather than  you, you can influence its selection by designating someone in your Will. Alternatively, in some states, you can also execute a document known as a "Pre-need Designation of Guardian," which will designate a person to be the guardian should the need arise. While neither the designation you make in your Will or a pre-need designation is legally binding on the court, judges usually follow your wishes unless they feel there is a good reason not to.
      • Appointing a guardian can be a slow process, and costly to your estate.
      • For more about choosing and designating a guardian, see Choosing a Guardian.
    • Create a trust
      • With a trust, you give property to a separate entity which is controlled by a trustee or trustees. When setting up the trust , you provide instructions about how you would like the assets invested and spent. Traditionally, when a child reaches the age you specify, the trust ends and the child receives whatever is left in the trust.
      • If you have more than one child, you can set up a "pot trust" for all of them. The trustee that you appoint to manage the trust will decide what each child needs and spend the money accordingly. This works especially well if you have children with special needs.
      • A trust can be created as a separate document while you are alive, or i tcan be created in your will.
      • To learn more, see Trusts.
    • Use the local Uniform Gifts/Transfers to Minors Act. In most states, you can choose a custodian to manage property you are leaving to a child. If you die when the child is under the age set by your state's law, the custodian will manage your property until the child is of age. 

What To Do If You Want Your Heirs To Divide Your Personal Property Among Themselves

The division of personal property is a potential source of conflict among beneficiaries. According to a poll conducted in 2005 by Allianz Life Insurance Company, heirs are five times more likely to fight about distributing personal possessions than about money.

To avoid problems, consider the following alternatives to see if one works for you:

  • Ask your heirs what they want -- and why. Or ask your heirs what property is meaningful to them, and why.  You can use their wishes to help you make your own decision. If more than one wants the same item, you can decide who gets it.
  • Pick a system for your heirs to use after you're gone. If you do, be sure to tell them. For instance:
    • Separate the valuable items from the sentimental ones that aren't worth a lot. 
    • For each group of assets, put numbers on sheets of paper equal to the number of people who will divide the property. 
    • Each person randomly pulls a number. 
    • The person with the highest number chooses first, the next lowest chooses second etc. 
    • If you use this me thod, it would be helpful if you prepare a list of assets - particularly the ones with real financial value. To help prepare your  list  of assets, see Household Inventory.
  • The Executor can host an auction with fake money. 
    • Each beneficiary starts with the same amount of money. 
    • People bid on the objects they want.
  • If you want to make sure that each beneficiary receives an equal dollar share: 
    • Once all of your assets have been distributed, your heirs can add up the value of the chosen items, (getting appraisals where necessary). 
    • Cash or other items of lesser value can be added to balance everything out.
  • If your heirs are unable to decide among themselves about who gets what assets within a period of time such as 60 or 90 days after your Will is admitted to probate, you can have the Executor decide. His or her decision would be binding.
  • Heirs can draw lots.

What To Consider If You Are Leaving Property To Charity

Leaving money to charity in your Will helps people and causes you believe in. It also helps reduce the size of your estate for estate tax purposes.

If you are considering donating a large share of your estate to charity, check with a local attorney. There may be a maximum amount in your state over which your heirs can challenge the donation. If there is such a limitation, ask your attorney how to get around it. For instance: Can you provide in your Will that if the bequest to charity is challenged, the share the person who challenges it would have received instead goes to an unrelated person? There are probate courts that refuse to honor no-contest clauses, but it's worth the attempt. NOTE: If you use this method, it is not advisable to have the substitute beneificary be someone the challenger cares about, such as one of the challenger's children. 

Consider leaving at least a part of your estate to a disease specific non-profit organization which does research on, advocates for, or provides support to people with your condition.

What To Consider If You Want to Disinherit A Spouse Or Child

Some people may not wish to leave anything to certain family members, such as a spouse or child, who are usually legally entitled to a share of your estate. Some states have provisions that can make this difficult.


  • Generally, it is legal to disinherit a child. However, some states -- such as Florida -- have statutes that protect minor children against losing the family residence.
  • Most states also have laws which assign children not mentioned in your Will a share of your estate on the assumption that you accidentally forgot to include them. In some states, this even applies to your child's children if your child dies.
  • Consider not disinheriting a child completely. Leave the child at least something in your Will. Also in your Will, acknowledge -- without using hurtful language -- that the relationship might not have been the best. This may help prevent legal challenges.
  • If you have any recently born children who are not included in your will, be sure to revise your Will to include them -- or mention that you are not including them.

Spouses: You generally cannot disinherit a spouse completely. In community property states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Alaska if you executed a written community property agreement), your spouse automatically owns half of all the property and earnings acquired by either of you during your marriage. There are a few exceptions including gifts and inheritances.

In other states, state laws give your spouse a legal claim to a portion of your estate no matter what your Will says. However, if he or she doesn't object, a spouse can inherit less than the statutory share.

Consult a lawyer if you do not plan to leave at least half of your property to your spouse in your Will and you haven't provided for him or her outside your Will.

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Considerations If You Are In A Second Marriage

If you are in a second marriage and have children from your first marriage, you may want to leave everything to your spouse with the understanding that he or she will then provide for your children in his or her Will. Give a lot of consideration to this idea before executing it. The agreement may not be binding. If it is not, your spouse can exclude the children that are not also his or her children. Your spouse may even have additional children after your death.

One way around this potential problem is to create a trust which gives your spouse access to the assets while he or she is alive, but leaves the remainder to your children upon your spouse's death.

NOTE: Instead of naming your spouse as Personal Representative/Executor, consider naming an independent person. This will avoid conflict between the spouse and your children.

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Related Articles

Trusts 101

What To Do If Your Estate Is Larger Than The Estate Tax Exemption.

Assets you leave to a spouse are not subject to estate tax.

Otherwise, there is a minimum required before there is a federal estate tax. The amount tends to vary from year to year. To learn the amount for the current year, go to offsite link. Search on "estate tax."  Keep in mind that even if your estate is smaller than the federal exemption, it may still be subject to a state estate tax. To find out if your estate is subject to tax, speak with your accountant, financial planner or tax attorney.

If your estate is subject to estate tax:

  • Speak with a financial planner or tax attorney to see if you can reduce or eliminate the tax.
  • Consider how the tax will be paid. Particularly if significant portions of your estate pass automatically such as jointly owned bank accounts, there may not be enough cash available to pay the bill. Assets will have to be sold. The assets remaining in your estate will bear a disproportionate estate tax burden.

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