Few people like to contemplate their own demise and, as a result, fewer than half of American adults have valid wills, according to the American Bar Association. Dying without a will leaves decisions about inheritance to the state and -- for those with minor children -- forfeits your say in their future care. If your spouse does not survive you, a guardian raises your minor children. A will is your vehicle to name a trusted person to this important office and also to appoint a financial guardian to manage their assets until they come of age.
Decide whether to have an attorney draft your will. Complex estates benefit from legal and tax advice while form wills often work well for simple holdings. If you decide to draft your own will, realize that form wills -- widely available on the Internet and in stationary stores -- vary in quality and precision. Select a form will specifically drafted for your state and approved by the local Bar Association. Some states such as California offer a statutory will, a form will containing all state requisites. Look for a statutory will in your state's probate code.
Read More: How to Fill Out Wills
Select a guardian to care for your minor children -- natural and adopted -- if your spouse does not survive you. Select a trusted friend or family member and discuss the appointment with that person before drafting your will. Do not forget children from previous marriages. Appoint a different financial guardian to manage the children's inheritance. Banks often serve in this role. Consider appointing an alternative guardian in case the first predeceases you or cannot serve.
Consider how to divide assets between spouse, minor children, adult children and other heirs. Factor in the current age and number of your minor children and the level of support they require through childhood. Although most states do not require parents to include bequests for adult children, consider what your holdings allow. Remember that some assets such as life insurance policies generally do not pass through your will but rather go directly to beneficiaries you name in the policy.
Consider adding conditions to your will to fit possible contingencies. Consider whether to condition a devise to a spouse or a child on that person surviving you. If so, provide an alternate beneficiary in case the person dies with or before you. In the case of adult children who predecease you, consider whether you wish that child's inheritance to pass to his own issue, if any, or to be divided among your own remaining children. Select an executor to manage your estate through probate and asset distribution.
Make an appointment with your attorney and take this information with you. She will use it to draft your will. Alternatively, fill in the form will. Early blanks require information about your identity; fill these in then plug in your bequests and choices for guardian and executor. Select witnesses. All states require that at least two adults -- usually not heirs under the will -- witness your signature. Tell the witnesses that the document is your final testament, then sign in their presence. They sign after you.
Use care if you intend to disinherit any children. Name each child in your will and bequeath each something, even if it is only a token sum. If courts believe that a child was forgotten by the testator, they award an equitable share of the estate.
One way of avoiding will contests and bad feelings is to tell all family members the terms of your will after you execute it. Although you have no obligation to do so, early disclosure allows time for heirs to ask questions and comprehend your choices.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.