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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When it comes to how to make a will, you have several choices. You can:
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.
Properly signing your will can help prevent successful challenges to it. Every state has specific rules about how will-makers must execute their wills. If you don't follow these rules exactly, a court can determine that your will isn't valid. If that happens, your property might pass by intestate succession, usually going to your closest relatives, rather than the beneficiaries you named in your will.
When possible, use "disinterested" witnesses—people who will not receive any property through your will. The will might still be technically valid if an interested witness signs, but the witness might lose whatever gift they would have received under the will if someone challenges it.
Using a self-proving affidavit also might help defend against challenges to your mental capacity. A self-proving affidavit usually states that the witnesses swear that they saw you sign your will and that you appeared to have capacity to make a will. Having the notarized affidavits of your witnesses could provide substantial help in defending your will against a challenge to your capacity.
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.
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.