What to Put in a Will

A checklist of estate planning needs

When you set out to work through the estate planning process and write your will, it can be a daunting experience. After all, most people won't ever write more than one. But the process isn't actually that difficult, and with tools like online wills, it's now easier than ever to do things on your own. Remember too, you can always have a lawyer look over your will, to make sure that you've included everything you need and that everything is legal.

When writing a will, you will need to:

  1. Name all beneficiaries and allocate your assets according to your desires.

  2. Designate a caretaker or guardian for children or dependents (including pets).

  3. Designate a guardian for assets , should children named as beneficiaries be underage.

  4. Designate an executor to administer your will.

  5. Sign the will with two witnesses, providing correct addresses and dates.

  6. File the will with a lawyer and keep a duplicate where it is safe.

Will Limitations

A will does not cover everything you might consider to be assets. The following is a complete list of items that may be of issue while estate planning, as they aren't covered by a will:

  1. Joint tenancy assets, including real estate, automobiles, joint bank accounts and any other property held in joint tenancy, will automatically pass directly to the other tenant.

  2. Life Insurance is designated by the policy and cannot be affected by anything you write in your will.

  3. Living Trusts are also subject to the provisions of the account agreement. A trust, like funeral insurance, can be instituted to cover funeral expenses. It can also be applied to any other beneficiary.

  4. Payable on Death Accounts or Transfer On Death accounts also have a named beneficiary that overrides wishes stated in any other document (including a will).

  5. Retirement plans , including 401K, IRAs and RRSPs are also transferred to the beneficiary named in your plan agreement.

  6. Your spouse's half of property . Different states have different laws concerning the execution of 'community property'. See your state laws for more details.

If your entire estate is jointly owned, you may still want the peace of mind of a will when you consider that your spouse or other joint owner may pass away before you. 


All states require that there be two witnesses to the signing of a will. This isn't simply a matter of signing their names. Witnesses may be called on to testify as to the legitimacy of your will. Competent witnesses must be over the age of majority, with sufficient mental capacity to know that they're acting as legal witnesses. In addition, witnesses must be as impartial as possible. Beneficiaries and their family members are almost always disqualified as legal witnesses. 

Revisions and Amendments

For all aspects of your will, never forget that you can make alterations at any time to should your circumstances change. In legal terms, this is called a 'codicil'. 

Provisions Concerning your Funeral

While you may use your will to give instructions for your funeral or the handling of your remains, you need to be aware that the will may not be read until after the funeral, and its contents in that area may not be legally binding. A will is primarily a source of estate planning.

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