What Should be Included in a Will

The content of your last will and testament usually depends on your personal and financial situation and should include ALL of your assets. Any remaining assets will be managed by the probate court, so you may want to consider a residuary or “leftovers” clause to prevent this. It may be as simple as “I leave my remaining assets to _________“.

It is important that your will reflects your wishes and clearly lays them out in enough detail to be faithfully carried out. Sometimes the body of the will is not adequate to do this and you can use additional measures to do this.

  • There are many forms available for specific tasks, such as a Beneficiary Designation Form, Personal Property Memorandum, and Digital Assets Memorandum, that can guide you through these tasks to provide additional detail and clarity.
  • Codicils or Addendums can be used to add clarity and detail to other tasks. Although they are considered part of your will, they have the advantage of being able to be created or updated without having to update your entire will.

You can purchase programs, such as Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2020, that guide you through the process of creating a Will or Trust or you can down-load state-specific will templates.

Your beneficiaries

List the names and ages of everyone you want to designate as a beneficiary.

This means your spouse, children, siblings and anyone else you want to leave part of your assets to.

In some states you can also use a Beneficiary Designation Form.

Be sure to revise your will when beneficiaries change to avoid leaving someone out or losing assets because someone has died.

You may also want to have contingencies for the possibility of a divorce or something happening to one of the beneficiaries.

This protects these assets from being distributed by the probate court according to state law, rather than your preference.

To account for the death of a beneficiary, you can either designate an alternate beneficiary or provide details on how your assets would be distributed to the remaining beneficiaries.

Another option is a “residuary beneficiary,” a person that you can designate to receive everything left in the estate after:

  • any specific gifts included in your will have been distributed
  • all non-probate property has been distributed
  • all debts, taxes, and final expenses have been paid

Your choice of Executor/Personal Representative

The will designates a still-living person as the Executor or Personal Representative of the estate who is responsible for administering the estate.

Your assets

Your last will and testament will be most effective if all of your assets are accounted for.

  • Not all assets are required to be listed for Probate Court, but those generally include any property, accounts, etc. that are owned by you alone.
  • For tax purposes, many assets may need to have their value assessed.
  • Make sure you include assets you might not have considered, like cryptocurrency, stored ova, sperm, or embryos.

Be sure to include instructions for complicated items, like certain tools or antique cars.

  • Be especially sure about items with legal restrictions, such as firearms.
  • You wouldn’t want your son to be arrested for having a gun that he could not legally have.

Addenda to wills are becoming common.

  • They are used to provide a greater level of detail without making your primary will too unwieldy and more complicated to update.
  • The other advantage is that you can update these documents without updating the entire will, or even consulting a lawyer.
List of Probate Assets

The inventory list for your last will and testament should include all the property solely owned by you, including all major property, accounts, and sentimental items. Once completed, the inventory list becomes part of the will and is filed with the probate court that will be responsible for your last will and testament after you die.

Because it is a part of your will, any changes require you to update your primary will. As seen below, this does not affect any addenda.

Items to include in the inventory list are any of those listed below for which you are the only owner.

  • Real estate, including your residence and any other real estate you own, even if it is in another state and requires a separate document in that state
  • Art, jewelry, and collections
  • Vehicles (in some states)
  • Furniture and household items such as china and silverware
  • Guns and other firearms – although it is vital to check the laws in your state before including these
  • Money, including bank accounts
  • IOUs
  • Stocks or bonds
  • Copyrights
  • Sentimental objects/items that you want specifically mentioned in your will

Personal Property Memorandum

In 30 states you can list your tangible assets in a Personal Property Memorandum. Tangible property is anything that can be touched; papers representing property do not count.

If it is mentioned in the will, it becomes a legal part of the will. Something like: “I am leaving a separate document from this will that disposes of some or all of my tangible personal property, that I direct to be incorporated into this will and followed by my executor. “

Since the personal property memorandum is an addendum to your will, it gives you the ability to list and easily update all of your property without having to change the entire will.

By being very specific in this document, you can prevent your personal possessions from becoming a significant source of will contests or a contest of wills involving family members. 

In order to accomplish this, here are a few more suggestions. Make sure that:

  • the memorandum does not contradict your will or include any items that you’ve already accounted for in your will. You don’t want the beneficiaries fighting over these items.
  • you clearly describe listed items to avoid confusion with similar items.
    • Many laws require these items to be described “with reasonable certainty.” 
    • From your prospective what you really want is to be sure your executor can easily identify the items and get them to the intended person.
  • your executor knows how to get in touch with each beneficiary by including all the necessary information, such as the person’s relationship to you and postal and/or email address

You don’t need witnesses to watch you sign or to have your signature notarized.

Although part of the inventory list, you cannot include real estate or nonphysical/intangible property such as:

  • Money, including bank accounts
  • IOUs
  • Stocks or bonds
  • Copyrights
  • Business properties, in most states.

Keep it in the same place as your will, where your executor will be able to find it easily.

Digital assets memorandum

It seems like just about everything these days involves a computer or smartphone. And if you think about it, with everything from email to digital music to online banking, we all have a huge digital footprint. Even some of our money may be digital, in the form of Cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash, etc.

Similar to the personal property memorandum, the digital assets memorandum (PDF) allows you to list and easily update your digital assets. It may be the most efficient way to guide your executor through this digital landscape.

First of all, consider all the devices that need to be accounted for, some of which may be password protected. Just a partial list of the most common ones your files or information may be stored on would include:

  • mobile telephones and smartphones
  • desktops, laptops, and tablets
  • peripherals and storage devices, such as external hard drives or thumb drives
  • Kindle or Nook, whose manufacturers, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, may have credit card information they used to download books.

More daunting than the number of devices to look at is the number of locations and the amount and type of information that has to be dealt with. See the section Checklist of information for details.


Many of us are not familiar with cryptocurrency and many of those who are have trouble understanding it. For these reasons, it may not be recognized as a digital asset that can be passed on to beneficiaries and needs to be mentioned separately.

It is basically digital money that can be traded or used to buy items in a similar way to a debit card. Similar to changing values for currency exchanges, which are tied to the vagaries of the market, cryptocurrency can also change in value, or buying power, over time.

Aside from making sure that everyone is aware of your cryptocurrency, there are other steps needed to assure it is inherited.

  • Everyone involved with your estate needs to be familiar with this concept.
  • Cryptocurrency must be listed in your will as an asset; it will become dormant if not recognized and used by your beneficiaries.
  • There needs to be clear instructions for distribution among beneficiaries.
  • You must share all the required information to access the digital asset, including the crypto keys, accounts, and security codes needed to access the currency. Remember, wills become part of the Public Record, so be careful what details about your cryptocurrency you include.

Specific instructions for all of your assets

It is important to be specific about who is to receive individual assets. While you could leave it up to the beneficiaries/heirs to decide, it may not be the best action, especially items of sentimental value.

  • These instructions tell your executor and the court how to divide your assets, including who or what organizations are to receive them, when they will be received, and the amount or percentage of the total estate. 
  • This is fairly easy if you’re planning to leave everything to your spouse and/or children. 
  • However, you may want to check with them first, since they may not want some of it. In that case it could be sold off or go directly to charity or a non-family member.

Be sure to revise your will when beneficiaries change to avoid leaving someone out or losing assets because someone has died. You may also want to have contingencies for the possibility of something happening to one of the beneficiaries.

If you have specific gifts in mind you will need to identify who will receive each asset. This includes gifts to individuals as well as the amount of any charitable donations.

Make sure you have the correct Beneficiary Designation Form and account for all of your assets on it. A Personal Property Memorandum can also make it easier to be more specific about individual items, if you spread them around more. So, instead of a statement leaving all your:

  • furniture to your spouse, you can be specific, even leaving your favorite recliner to your best friend
  • jewelry to your daughter, you can leave a particular family heirloom to your sister
  • art to a single person, you can distribute each piece to the person most likely to appreciate it

Other documents that can record specific instructions include College Investing Plan Accounts, Joint Tenant with Right of Survivorship and Tenants by Entirety accounts, Annuities, Health Savings Account, Transfer on Death account, and Payable on Death account.

In addition to who will receive your assets, you can also be specific about how you wish your assets to be managed after your death.

  • If any of your assets have monetary value, you may want to instruct your Executor to manage those assets in a specific way. For example, you may want credits or points or cash values to be redeemed for cash before being passed on, rather than transferring the ownership.
  • If you have assets that will continue to generate revenue you may prefer they be transferred to someone who can continue to manage them rather than be sold and the cash being passed on. 

 You may also use your will to forgive any outstanding debts owed to you.

If you are leaving anyone out of the will (disinheriting), specify this, along with your reasons, to reduce the chance of it being questioned. However, a surviving spouse is entitled to a certain share of the property in all states, even if there is a will stating otherwise.

  • This is called the surviving spouse’s elective share and the amount of the share varies by state. See the Restrictions section in the state-specific information for your state. 
  • Most states allow community property with rights of survivorship which automatically transfers jointly-owned property to your surviving spouse.
  • Unless otherwise agreed upon by both of you, one half of the property earned by you during your marriage belongs to the surviving spouse
  • In your will you can dictate how your share of separate property (i.e. solely yours) is distributed, whether to your descendents or to the community property if previously agreed to.

Other possibilities
  • Self-proving affidavits – a sworn statement attached to your will, signed by the will maker (you or your lawyer) and their witnesses, that vouches for the validity of the will.
  • Provisions for your pets
  • An ethical will – also called a legacy letter – is a personal document written to your family and friends that shares your values, memories and life lessons, spiritual values, and hopes for the future.
  • Letters to loved ones
General References
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