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How to Make a Will

Here are the few simple steps you need to take to create your will.

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After you die, your will (if you have one) guides many important decisions—including who gets your property, who your executor is, who takes care of your minor children, and how your estate pays debts and taxes.

Steps to Make a Will:

  1. Decide what property to include in your will
  2. Decide who will inherit your property
  3. Choose an executor to handle your estate
  4. Choose a guardian for your children
  5. Choose someone to manage children's property
  6. Make your will
  7. Sign your will in front of witnesses
  8. Store your will safely

1. Decide what property to include in your will

To get started, list your significant assets. Then decide which items will be left by other methods, outside your will. (For example, you might have already named a beneficiary for your retirement account or bank account, or you might want to keep certain assets out of probate.) Keep in mind that if you're married, each spouse makes a separate will. You can leave only your share of any assets you own jointly with your spouse.

2. Decide who will inherit your property

For most people, it isn't hard to decide who gets what. (But use caution if you are considering leaving your spouse or children out of your will.) After you make your first choices, don't forget to choose alternate (contingent) beneficiaries, too, in case your first choices don't survive you.

3. Choose an executor to handle your estate

You can use your will to name an executor, who will carry out the terms of the will. The executor oversees the probate process, the distribution of your assets, and the payment of your debts and taxes. The person you name doesn't have to have any specific training because your executor can always hire a lawyer, accountant, or other professional to help. But be sure that the person you have in mind is willing to serve—the job shouldn't come as a surprise.

4. Choose a guardian for your children

If your children are minors, decide who you want to raise them in the very unlikely event that you and their other parent can't.

5. Choose someone to manage children's property

If you leave property to children or young adults, you should choose an adult to manage whatever they inherit. To give that person authority over the child's inheritance, you can name that person to be a property guardian, a property custodian under a law called the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA), or a trustee.

6. Make your will

When it comes to how to make a will, you have several choices. You can:

  • Hire a lawyer. Many people choose to hire a lawyer to make their estate plan, and this is unequivocally the best choice if you need or want personalized legal advice—and you can afford to pay.
  • Use a statutory form. A few states provide a standard will form that you can fill out if you are a resident of that state. These states are California, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. On the upside, statutory wills are simple, easy to fill out, and familiar to the probate court. On the other hand, they are often too simple and inflexible to be useful to most people.
  • Make a will yourself. Many people can make their own wills using high-quality do-it-yourself software or services, such as Nolo's Quicken WillMaker. DIY wills are not for everybody; if you have complex business holdings, complicated debt, or serious family conflicts, you should probably see a lawyer. But if you have a relatively simple estate and straightforward wishes, a dependable product like WillMaker can save you time, money, and hassle, at a fraction of the cost of hiring a lawyer.

7. Sign your will in front of witnesses

After making your will, you'll need to sign it in the presence of at least two witnesses. If you're using a document called a "self-proving affidavit" with your will (to make things simpler when the will goes through probate court after your death), your signature must be notarized as well. Full instructions are included with Nolo's Quicken WillMaker software.

8. Store your will safely

Your will won't do anybody any good if your loved ones can't find it after you die. Store it someplace safe and clearly labeled, and share the location with your executor. Ideally, you'll keep it with other important documents in a file cabinet or desk drawer—some place your family would look for it. You do not have to keep it in a lock box, and doing so could delay the probate process after your death.

Making a Will in Your State

Learn more about making a will in your state through the links below. And to get more plain-English information about estate planning visit Nolo's Wills, Trusts & Probate Center.

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