What Is a Will?

Many people know they need a will, but not everyone knows what a will is or what it does.

Most people know that they should have a will, but many don’t know what a will is and how it works.

A will, sometimes called a “last will and testament,” is a document that states your final wishes.  It is read by a county court after your death, and the court makes sure that your final wishes are carried out.

What a Will Does

Most people use a will to leave instructions about what should happen to their property after they die.  However, you can also use a will to

  • Name an executor.
  • Name guardians for children and their property.
  • Decide how debts and taxes will be paid.
  • Provide for pets.
  • Serve as a backup to a living trust.

You shouldn’t try to use a will to:

  • Put conditions on your gifts. (I give my house to Susan if she finishes college.)
  • Leave instructions for final arrangements.
  • Leave property for your pet.
  • Make arrangements for money or property that will be left another way. (Property in a trust or property for which you’ve named a pay-on-death beneficiary.)

To learn more, read What a Will Won’t Do.  If you want to do any of these things, get help from a lawyer.

What Are the Legal Requirements of a Will

There are very few legal requirements for wills.  To make a will in any U.S. state, you must:

  • Know what property you have and what it means to leave it to someone after your death.  Legally, this is called having "capacity" and it is also known as being “of sound mind.”
  • Create a document that names beneficiaries for at least some of your property.
  • Sign the document.
  • Have the document signed by two witnesses.

No state requires your will to be notarized, although you may use a notarized self-proving affidavit that will make your will easier to get through probate after your death.

A few states allow you to make a handwritten “holographic” wills, that don’t have to be signed by witnessed.  However, handwritten wills should only be used when you do not have time to make a formal will because they are much more susceptible to challenge after your death.

You can make your will online, quickly and easily, using Nolo's Online Will.

How to Write a Will

You can write a will yourself, or you can hire a lawyer to write one for you. If you write one yourself, you’ll want to find a good will template to help you.  To learn more about finding and using a good will template read Using a Will Template and Types of Will Templates.

There are no magic words that must be used to create a will.  The best advice for writing your own will is to find a good will writing tool to help you. It should help you use clear, unambiguous language to accurately describe your wishes.  It should also explain your options and help you decide what to include in your will.  For example,

  • Do you want to name several levels of executors?
  • Do you want to name more than one executor to work together?
  • Do you want to name guardians for your children or their property?
  • Do you want to create a trust for your children, so that they receive your property when their older than 18?

And a good will making template will help you know when you should see a lawyer for help writing your will. For example, you should talk to a lawyer if you:

  • Want to disinherit your spouse or child.
  • Are worried that someone might challenge your will.
  • Want to provide money and care for pets after your death.
  • Want to control what happens to your property long after your death.
  • Are worried about estate taxes.

To learn more about will making, read How to Write a Will or The Simple Will.

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