When making a will, you need to know which kinds of property pass through a will and which don't. Property that does not pass through your will should not be included in your will.
You can use your will to leave most types of property to beneficiaries, however certain types of property pass to beneficiaries outside of your will (and outside of probate):
If you hold property in joint tenancy, tenancy by the entirety or community property with right of survivorship, your share of that property automatically belongs to the surviving co-owner after you die. A will provision leaving your share would have no effect unless all co-owners die simultaneously. Learn more about Joint Ownership.
Property you place in a trust passes automatically to the beneficiary named in the trust document; you cannot pass this property in your will. This includes property placed in a revocable living trust. Learn more about Living Trusts.
Many types of property require you to assign a beneficiary to the property. These types of property do not pass through a will.
Learn more about Avoiding Probate on Nolo.com.
Note for Washington Readers
The state of Washington does things differently. If you're a Washington resident, you can leave the following types of property in your will:
your share of joint tenancy bank accounts
If you set up one of these devices for leaving your property and then later use your will to change the beneficiary, the property goes to the person you name in your will. However, if you designate a new beneficiary after you make your will—for example, by updating the paperwork for a pay-on-death account or changing your living trust— the gift in the will has no effect.
Before making a will, it is a good idea to take inventory—writing down the valuable or meaningful items of property you own. See the categories below to jog your memory. Even if you plan to leave everything to your spouse or children, making a list will keep you from overlooking things.
Here is a list of the kinds of property you should think about when planning your estate. Not every type of property listed here will pass through your will. (See above.) This list is simply provided to help you inventory your property.
Business property (if you own a sole proprietorship)
Cameras and photo equipment
China, crystal, and silver
Coins and stamps
Copyrights, patents and trademarks
When you're inventorying your property, keep in mind that there are many things about your property that your survivors will need to know. Usually, these types of details do not belong in your will. For example:
You can leave an informal letter for your executor that provides these details, or you can make a more systematic document, such as the Information for Caregivers and Survivors document, provided with Quicken WillMaker Plus.
Learn more about Making a Will on Nolo.com.