If you have property, you should have a will. This document specifies how your assets should be divided on your death, and helps your heirs avoid a costly and difficult court procedure. Drawing up a will is a fairly simply procedure; you set down a few sections to specify your beneficiaries and bequests, and witness signatures make the document legal.
Begin your will with a heading. The traditional phrase is “Last Will and Testament.” Center the heading and make it prominent. Number the paragraphs to follow, and initial or sign each page at the bottom.
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Write a declaration of your name and address, and state that you are of sound mind and of legal age -- 18 in most states -- to make out a will. Add any titles or other names by which you may be known and identified. State that you are making out the will on your own initiative and are not under duress.
Name your executor -- the person responsible for carrying out the will after your demise. Name an alternate who will take on this function if your executor is unable or unwilling to carry out this task. Name a legal guardian for your minor children, if you have any. Failure to name an executor and guardian could mean delay and expense for your heirs.
Name your beneficiaries -- the individuals or groups that will inherit your assets by the terms of the will. You are free to name any beneficiaries you wish, but the laws of the state may determine if your spouse and children can inherit if you do not name them in the will; in addition, a contest of the will in probate will mean considerable delay, public wrangling and expense.
List all assets that are not specifically assigned to named beneficiaries. This means your money, investments, property, businesses and any other personal belongings. Omit such things as life insurance policies that already have assigned beneficiaries.
Name all specific bequests -- the property that you want passed on to beneficiaries you name. After your bequests, you may state that the remainder of the estate should pass to named beneficiaries, to be divided equally or in any proportion you wish.
Detail your desired funeral arrangements if you haven't taken care of this already and wish to explain your wishes in the will.
Sign the will in the presence of at least two witnesses and include their printed full names and addresses underneath their signatures. The witnesses might not be able to be beneficiaries of the will, depending on your state's laws. Their signatures must be dated.
Some states allow you to make out a handwritten or holographic will. Consult an attorney familiar with the law to ensure you do it properly. If the holographic will is found invalid, your estate will go through a full probate procedure, and the courts will decide how your property is divided.
Writing up a will does not avoid probate; it simply makes the process easier. Though probate may not be necessary if there are no complications with your estate.
If you have property in a foreign country, draw up a separate will that conforms to the laws of that nation. Engage an attorney who is familiar with the estate and probate laws of the foreign country to assist you.
Review and update your will at least once a year and keep it in a safe place. A home safe is good, but a safety deposit box is better. Make sure your executor knows where the will is. If you move to another state, review the will and verify with an attorney that it conforms to the law.
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