A will is a document that allows you to be sure the people or organizations you choose will inherit your assets when you die. Failing to plan your estate — a term that refers to the property you own when you die — can expose your family to headache and heartache. You’ve probably heard stories about poorly planned estates that divide grieving families. You probably even know people who have experienced this kind of strife.
Creating a will is an essential part of planning your estate. If you die without a will, the state can decide who inherits your assets and who takes care of your children. If you’re older than 18 and of “sound mind,” meaning you fully understand the action you’re taking, you can write a will. Before you do, think about who you want to execute your will, or to be responsible for ensuring your assets go where you intend for them to go. This responsibility can involve paying your debts and selling your home, so make sure you’re thinking about someone who not only wants to honor your wishes but is also capable of attending to these kinds of matters. If you have children, think about who you’d want to be their guardian in your absence. Think also about who you want to be the beneficiaries — recipients — of your assets, including land, cars, and family heirlooms.
Types of Wills
Writing a will can feel like a daunting process, especially when you consider the various options you have to choose from. Your choice will be determined by a range of factors, including whether you’re married, whether you have children, and what stage of life you’re in. But the process doesn’t have to be complicated; you can even do it yourself. Let’s break down some common types of wills so you can start thinking about which one is right for you.
1. Simple Will
The simplest type of will is aptly known as a simple will. This is a document that allows you to outline who or what organization(s) you’d like to inherit your assets upon your death, and who you’d like to oversee the process of distribution. A simple will also lets you identify guardians for your kids or pets.
2. Holographic Will
In spite of its official-sounding name, this kind of will is even simpler than a simple will. It’s essentially a handwritten document and it doesn’t always need to be signed in the presence of a witness.4 While this can be a useful option in the case of a life-threatening accident, for example, this kind of will doesn’t always hold up in court. Some states do not recognize it at all.
3. Nuncupative Will
A nuncupative will is another fancy term for a simple kind of will. Also known as a deathbed will, this is communicated orally. Some states don’t recognize these, either.5
4. Living Will
A living will protects your interests while you are still living by outlining, in writing, your wishes for your care and your assets if you become ill or unable to speak. It doesn’t actually determine the distribution of your assets upon your death. Another option is to sign a document giving someone you trust power of attorney, or the authorization to make decisions on your behalf. The former choice fixes your wishes; the latter allows for greater flexibility and more adaptive decision-making.1
5. Joint Will
A joint will records the wishes of two people. If the two people are married, for example, the document ensures that when one spouse dies, the other inherits his, her, or their assets. This type of will originated before word processing technology, and the idea was that it saved time and paper. But it’s important to note that these wills are limited because they can’t be changed, even after one partner dies. This means that if, for example, a surviving partner remarries and bears children, nothing in the joint will can be bequeathed to those children unless explicitly stated.2
6. Mirror Will
To avoid this problem, many partners elect to sign a mirror will instead. The terms are essentially the same — the wills “mirror” one another — but the documents are signed and stored separately. This kind of will is also known as a reciprocal will. While you still can’t control how your surviving spouse or partner distributes assets upon your death, you can at least be sure that the terms can adapt to his or her evolving circumstances.3
7. Testamentary Trust
A testamentary trust is a trust within a will. This is different from a living trust, which you create while you are still alive, because it only comes into effect upon your death. It’s a useful option if you want to appoint a trustee to manage what’s in the trust so that the beneficiaries, or recipients of your assets, get their inheritance gradually or at a specified point in time. This kind of will allows you to, for example, delay your child’s inheritance until he or she is old enough to manage money.6
8. Pour-Over Will
A pour-over will complements a trust. The pour-over will directs any assets not distributed to specific beneficiaries into this trust, to be used according to the instructions of the trust and at the discretion of the trustee you appoint.7 One advantage of a trust is that, unlike a will, it doesn’t become a public record after your death. Another is that it determines the fate of the assets you may not get around to including in your will before your death.8
So What Type of Will Do I Need?
Many factors will determine which type of will is best for you. If you don’t have a complicated estate, you may want to sign a simple will. Click the link below to access one of our form-fillable documents so you can get started on yours today. If you’re married, you may want to consider a joint or a mirror will.
Those with complex financial situations may want to talk to a lawyer to prepare a will. But it’s also possible to do it yourself with a downloadable agreement from eForms, the largest online database of free legal forms. Once you’ve written your will, check your state’s laws to be sure you have the legally required number of witnesses present when you sign it. Remember also to protect your will once it’s signed. Keep an original copy with your executor and another in a waterproof, fireproof place because if your will disappears, so do your plans for your assets.