How to Describe Property in a Will

Make sure the right piece of property goes to your beneficiary.

By , Attorney

If you're like most people, you're making a will primarily because you want certain pieces of property to go to specific people. To make sure the right property gets to the right beneficiaries, make sure you use good descriptions in your will. Here's how.

Specific Gifts

When making gifts of specific property, describe the property with enough detail so that your executor will be able to identify and find the property when the time comes. You don't need to use any fancy language, just a clear, concise description.

Here are some simple examples:

  • my 1959 Martin guitar
  • my baby grand piano
  • my collection of blue apothecary jars

If an item is very valuable or could be easily confused with other property, make sure you include identifying characteristics, such as location, serial number, color or some other unique feature.

You can make your own will, quickly and easily, using Nolo's Quicken WillMaker.

Household Furnishings

You normally need not get very specific, unless an object is particularly valuable. It is enough to list the location of the property: "all household furnishings and possessions in the apartment at 55 Drury Lane."

Real Estate

You can simply provide the street address or, for unimproved property, the name by which it is commonly known. For example:

  • my condominium at 123 45th Avenue
  • my summer home at 84 Memory Lane in Oakville
  • the vacant lot next to the McHenry Place on Old Farm Road

Unless there is no other way to clearly describe it, you do not need to provide the legal description from the deed.

Bank, Stock, and Money Market Accounts

List financial accounts by their account numbers. Also, include the name and location of the

organization holding the property. For example:

  • $20,000 from savings account #22222 at Independence Bank, Big Mountain, Idaho
  • my money market account #23456 at Beryl Pynch & Company, Chicago, Illinois
  • 100 shares of General Foods common stock

Personal Items

As with household goods, it is usually adequate to briefly describe personal items and group them, unless they have significant monetary or sentimental value. For example, items of extremely valuable jewelry should normally be listed and identified separately, while a drawer full of costume jewelry and baubles could be grouped.

You May Not Need to Describe Your Property at All

If you leave all of your property to one person or a group of people, you don't need to describe each individual piece of property. After your death, your executor will inventory all of your property and will it will all pass to that person or group. This is true even if you leave a few specific items as well. For example, if you leave your golf clubs to your nephew, but all of your other property to your spouse, you would want to describe the golf clubs well enough to be clear, but you wouldn't need to describe the rest of your property that would go to your spouse.

Do Not Place Conditions on Bequests

Don't place conditions on any of your bequests; it risks making a confusing and even unenforceable will. Here are some examples of what not to do:

  • "I leave my gold Rolex to Andres, but only if he divorces his current wife, Samantha." Such a bequest would not be considered legally valid, because it encourages the breakup of a family.
  • "I leave my dental office equipment to Claude, as long as he sets up a dental practice in San Francisco." The reason this bequest is unwieldy becomes obvious once you think ahead to the need for constant supervision. Who would be responsible for tracking Claude's dentistry career and making sure he ends up in San Francisco? What if Claude initially practices in San Francisco, using the equipment he was willed, then moves to grow grapes in the Napa Valley? Must he give up the equipment? To whom?
  • "I leave my vintage Barbie doll collection to Collette, if the dolls are still in good condition." Who is to judge whether the dolls are in good condition? What happens if they aren't?

If you are determined to place conditions on beneficiaries or property, consult a lawyer who is experienced in drafting bequests that will adequately address these potentially complex arrangements.

Do Not Include Property that Will Pass by Other Means

Before describing the property in a will, take a moment to reflect on what property you are legally able to pass in your will. If you have already arranged to leave property outside your will by using legal devices, such as life insurance, pay-on-death bank accounts or living trusts, you usually should not include that property in a specific bequest.

Read more about Making a Will: What Property to Include.

Make a will quickly and easily with Nolo's Quicken WillMaker. In addition to a will, WillMaker provides several other key estate planning forms, including a living trust, health care directive, and a durable power of attorney for finances.

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