Last Will and Testament

The last will and testament is a major part of an estate plan and will ensure that the estate is settled according to your wishes. While there are other steps in estate planning, the will is the primary document to guide the process of settling an estate for most people. The official term for the creator of a will is a testator. Unfortunately only 46% of Americans 18 years old and older have a will. Although the percentage does rise among older adults, 24% of Americans ages 65 and over still do not have one. You may use your will to express your sentiments toward loved ones and your hopes for their future, forgive debts, provide special instructions about care of minor children, form posthumous trusts, and to provide for your pets. Wills usually require specific language, some of which may be determined by your State’s rules. You should regularly review and revise your will when preferences or circumstances change. Update your will as soon as possible for any of these events:
  • You get married, form a domestic partnership, or have a civil union;
  • The birth or adoption of a child;
  • The death of a beneficiary;
  • You are diagnosed with a terminal illness; and/or
  • You move to a different state where the laws may differ.
After a divorce most states will allow you to revoke your ex-spouse’s rights in your will; some states do so automatically. The laws for making a last will and testament vary from state to state, but there are some basic requirements.
  • Testamentary capacity means that you are at least 18 years old and of sound mind; the age limit in certain states is lower if you’re legally married.
  • Depending on the state you live in, your will should be either typed or handwritten.
    • Some states allow oral (nuncupative) wills under certain circumstances.
    • Holographic wills, — wills written in your handwriting but are not witnessed — are allowed in many states.
  • A few states allow videotaped records of the will signing to be used as a legal validation of the will.
A last will and testament is a legal document that is prepared while you are alive that describes how you want your assets to be handled after you’re gone.
  • Its purpose is to give information and guidance to your executor or trustee and beneficiaries and may not be legally binding.
  • It outlines what to do with your money, possessions, and other assets, such as being left to another person, a group, or donated to specified charities.
  • This could include larger assets like your home or other properties, or possessions of lesser value, like a family heirloom or personal items.
  • It may designate how and who will manage your accounts and interests.
  • If you have dependents, it will state your wishes for them, including who will act as legal guardian for minor children, dependent adults, or pets.
  • It needs to be signed and witnessed, although beneficiaries should not be witnesses. Some states may require notarization.
You should include all the information needed to clearly identify, locate, and access all of your assets, including:
  • Financial accounts, digital assets, tax information, insurance policies, credit cards, vehicle loans, and mortgages;
  • Contact information for relatives and close friends to be notified of your death;
  • Where assets and possessions are located (property addresses, safe deposit boxes, home safe, storage units, electronic devices or the internet, etc.);
  • All your passwords, usernames, domain names, or other information needed to access digital information;
  • Keys and combinations; and/or
  • Instructions regarding your desires for burial, cremation, funeral ceremonies, organ donation, etc.
For further details about planning a will and its content see Start the Process, Crucial Estate Planning Steps, and Digital Estates.

Updated: December 12, 2022