You’ve seen it in every kind of movie from horror to comedy. A grieving family gathers around a lawyer’s desk for the reading of the will.

In most of those movies, a greedy youngster is after an older relative’s wealth (Knives Out). Or the will forces an heir to change their bad behavior to get the inheritance (Easy Money).

But those Hollywood wills aren’t like wills in real life.

Normal people don’t use their will to manipulate family—which is good because that’s not what a will is for.

Then what is a will and why do you need one? Let’s take a look.

A will—or last will and testament—is a signed, legally binding document that describes exactly how you want your assets (like property, bank accounts and other things you own) to be handled after you die. There are several types of wills, but they all boil down to the same basic document. And wills are the cornerstone of estate planning.

A will can resolve issues as big as dividing the family farm among five siblings or as small as making sure your nephew gets the pocketknife he admires.

Why Do I Need a Will?

A will helps you protect the people and things you care about the most.

For example, in your will, you can appoint guardian(s) for children under 18 or adult children with special needs. That means you have the power to choose someone you trust to love and protect your kids when they need it most.

Many people avoid making a will because they don’t want to think about dying, but here’s the thing: We’ve done the research and 100% of people who don’t want to think about dying still die.

If you make a will on the other hand, you’re less likely to die. No, just kidding. You’ll still die. But you’ll have peace of mind knowing your loved ones are protected because you planned ahead and weren’t afraid of the hard stuff! And they won’t have to deal with all the crazy things that can happen if you die without a will.

What Instructions Are Covered in a Will? 

Of course, a will only protects your family and gives you peace of mind if all the right pieces are there. So, it’s important to make sure that you include at least four things:

An Executor

Writing down your wishes only matters if there’s someone to make sure those wishes get carried out. That’s what your executor—also called a personal representative—does. They’ll read the will and handle all other end-of-life business the way you wanted.

You might hire a lawyer to do this if your will is complicated, but many people simply choose a level-headed, honest relative. An adult child or close family friend will do. They will be involved through probate and after so make sure to talk to them first, so they aren’t blindsided by the responsibility.

Beneficiaries

Beneficiaries are the people who will get your stuff. They’re usually immediate family members, but your will can also name extended relatives, good friends, charities you support or anyone else you want.

If you’re married, you could name your spouse as the sole beneficiary, but it’s also good to have a backup plan in case your spouse passes away first.

Things get more complicated when you have kids, especially in a blended family. It’s a good idea to tell them exactly who gets what beforehand to avoid any confusion or resentment.

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If you don’t, they could end up in a years-long feud over your favorite pizza pan or your lawn mower. (Yes, those are real examples, and no, your family won’t handle the situation any better once grief gets thrown into the mix.)

And if you’re single without kids, consider which family members, friends or charities you’d like to give your things to. (Just please don’t name your pet—as much as you love Fluffy, a cat doesn’t need your condo.)

Gifts

This part of your will spells out what each beneficiary gets. If you have special wishes around the gifts you make in your will, you can include a letter of instruction to outline specifics.

For money, you can set aside a percentage or a dollar amount for each gift. For personal items, give as many details as you need to make sure the right item goes to the right person.

If you’re giving your favorite watch to your closest cousin, describe the watch and name the cousin. Otherwise, your executor may give them the wrong watch—or they might give the right watch to the wrong person.

When you’re deciding who gets what, remember: There’s no wrong answer. It’s all up to you! So take your time, think it through, and leave your stuff to people you think will truly treasure it.

Guardians

You only hire babysitters you trust to watch your kids for a few hours, so why would you leave the care of your children up to chance if something happens to you? If your children are minors or have a lifelong disability, make sure your will specifies who will take care of them when you’re gone.

And you definitely don’t want to place your children in the wrong hands. Parents, don’t make this decision lightly. Think about it and talk it over together first.

It should go without saying, but here it is anyway: Talk with the guardians you’d like to choose before naming them in your will! You don’t want a Life as We Know It situation on your hands. Springing the emotional and financial burden of caring for your children on unsuspecting loved ones is not cool.

You should also talk to beneficiaries about pet care. Pets are easier to take on than kids, but they’re still a big responsibility. Ask if your beneficiaries are able and willing to take care of Fido—don’t just assume they are!

What Is Not Covered in a Will? 

A will can tell your family what to do with everything from your checking account to the kitchen sink, but there are still some things it can’t control. Here are some assets that are handled separately from your will:

  • Retirement funds: Your company 401(k) or IRA accounts will name beneficiaries in the original documents.
  • Life insurance policies: The beneficiaries for your life insurance are also taken care of separately from your will.
  • Joint tenancy assets: If you and someone else (like your spouse) hold a joint title to anything (like a house, bank account or vehicle), ownership automatically passes to the survivor.

If you want to change the beneficiaries for these assets, contact the fund, insurance or title companies directly. Changing your will (or adding a codicil) won’t change the information on these accounts. Instead, your will should reflect what these other documents already say.

Even though your will won’t override the original documents or joint title, it can (and should) tell your loved ones where to find those documents so they can access the rest of your assets. In this case, your will is like a treasure map leading your loved ones where they need to go (but hopefully not as confusing!).

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How to Maintain a Will

Now that you know what a will does, you might be thinking, Where do I put it? And what if something changes? We’re glad you’re thinking about these things because they’re an important part of taking care of your loved ones.

Where should you keep your will?

The good news is you don’t have to bury it in the garden, put it under the mattress, or hide it in a secret compartment in your desk. In fact, please don’t. You do want to keep your will in a safe place and tell your loved ones (or at least your executor and backup executor) where they can find it.

A legacy drawer is the best place to store a will—and it’s a good idea to have both a physical and digital legacy drawer. Always keep the original will document even if you have a digital copy, but store a copy in a secure online file or document storage system so you and your loved ones can easily access it and all your other important documents.

When should you change your will?

Just because you got your will done doesn’t mean you’re set forever. Plenty of life events could cause you to revise your will. Here are some of them:

  • Marriage
  • Kids (both when they’re born and become adults)
  • Divorce
  • Death (of anyone named in the will, like a beneficiary or executor)
  • A move (new state, new rules)
  • New circumstances (family disagreements, addictions, etc.)
  • You changed your mind (hey, it happens)

Anytime something like this happens, change your will either by writing a new one or creating a codicil (an added document that makes a small change to your will).

How often should you change your will?

Well, obviously whenever one of the above events takes place, you should change your will. But you should also make it a habit to check your will once every year or so even if you don’t think you need to adjust it. You may find you need to change something anyway (laws may have changed or you may have forgotten something).

Who can witness your will?

Speaking of changing your will, you’ll need to get it witnessed again (you can use the same people who watched you sign it the first time and then signed themselves if they’re happy to do it again) whenever you make any changes—which brings up a good question: Who can witness your will?

As long as they’re a legal adult, anyone except a beneficiary can witness your will. It’s generally not a good idea to have a beneficiary serve as witness because they stand to gain from it, and that could throw doubt on your will. Most people choose a good friend or relative who isn’t in the will to witness for them.

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Mistakes to Avoid With Your Will

We’ve told you a lot about what to do, but sometimes it’s helpful to know exactly what not to do (like don’t write your will in crayon).

Here are some mistakes you want to avoid when making a will:

Ignoring the Rules

Wills can’t change who you chose for your beneficiary on accounts like IRAs and insurance policies. Those are the rules. If you rely on your will to change those beneficiaries, it won’t work. Don’t do that—you’re smarter than that.

Also, some states’ rules for wills are as far apart from each other as Florida and California. Make sure you know your state’s rules—and that your will is specific to the state you live in.

Choosing a Bad Executor

It would be better to hire a lawyer to execute your estate than choose poorly from your friends or family. Make sure you choose someone you know well who has a level head, or get a lawyer if your whole family is a nutcase.

Not Having a Backup (Executor, Guardian, Primary Beneficiary)

So you chose someone for each of these jobs, asked them if they’re up for it, and they all agreed. That’s great, but unfortunately, it’s not enough. Circumstances can change quickly, and anything could happen before you get a chance to fix your will—or even after you’re gone. Don’t leave your kids without a guardian because you didn’t pick a backup! Always choose a secondary option for your executor, guardian and primary beneficiary.

Putting Your Burial Wishes in Your Will

Wills often don’t get read until well after the casket is in the ground and “Amazing Grace” has been sung. Wait! You wanted to be cremated? Whoops, too bad—that was in the will, and nobody knew.

Yes, you need to tell your closest loved ones about any funeral wishes you have—but not in your will.

Leaving a Surprise

We’re talking about “Surprise! You get my million dollars of Spanish gold!” and “Surprise! You get my 6-year-old, Alvin.” Some surprises are better than others, but when it comes to estate planning it’s best to leave no surprises behind. Tell everyone involved what’s in your will when you write it so everyone will be clear.

Never Updating Your Will

Yeah, this one might be the easiest to do, but it’s super important you don’t make this mistake. Just by failing to update your will, you could completely undo all the work of creating one. After all, if you named your wife as the sole beneficiary, but she passed before you, your will is useless. Check your will every few years!

Take the Next Step. You Can Get Started Today.

Now that you understand what a will really is, you’ve probably realized it isn’t anything like what you see in the movies. Instead of creating drama, wills are really all about protecting the people you care about.

If your situation is simple and uncomplicated, you can get that protection for your loved ones from the convenience of your home by creating a legally binding, affordable will online. Just as comforting? If you change your mind about anything in your will, you have six months to make adjustments for free.

Don’t wait. Start enjoying the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re protecting the people you love. Create your online will today with RamseyTrusted provider Mama Bear Legal Forms.

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