Your will is one of the most important parts of your estate planning - your plan for making sure that, upon your death, your family's financial needs are met and your property and belongings are disposed of in the way you want.
Writing a will is no simple matter, though. In addition to various legal requirements that must be met when actually writing a valid will, you need to make sure that all of your property and belongings are included in the will. That means you'll have to gather all kinds of information, particularly about your property and finances.
What Do You Own?
The best place to start is to make an inventory of your property, that is, all of the things that you own. Property is commonly split into two categories:
- Tangible property, which is property that you can touch and feel and that has value in and of itself, like furniture, cars, and a house
- Intangible property, which is property that you can't touch and feel but has value, which is usually represented by something else, like a certificate or legal right. Stocks and bonds ("certificate") and patents or copyrights (legal rights) are good examples of intangible property
Write down where all of your property is located and how much you think the property is worth. Some examples of things you need to list include:
- Household goods and "personal effects," such as furniture, clothes, and jewelry
- Cars and other motor vehicles, and be sure to have the certificates of title to any motor vehicle in a safe place
- Bank accounts, and where they're located, and any cash-on-hand
- Stocks and bonds, and where they're located, that is, if they're with a broker, list the name and address of the broker
- Collections or memorabilia, like baseball cards, sporting goods, and art
- Real property, including your home and any rental or vacation property, as well as where the property is located
- Insurance policies, including life and accidental death policies, together with the policy numbers, named beneficiaries, and name and address of the insurance company. Also, be sure the policies are kept in a safe place
Who Gets What, and How?
Next, it's a good idea to think about who your beneficiaries will be, and how they'll take your property under your will. Again, make a list, and, in addition to your spouse, include:
- Your children - including adopted children (and stepchildren, if you wish to leave them something)
- Your brothers and sisters
- Your parents, if they're still living
- Anyone else that you might want to leave something to in your will
Include in this as much identifying and contact information that you can for each person, such as current age, address, and telephone number.
As for how your beneficiaries will take the property you leave them, there are several ways to do it, but the most common are:
- A "bequest," which is the usual form of giving someone something in a will; sometimes this is also referred to as a "legacy." Note that leaving someone money is called a "legacy," rather than a bequest.
- In "trust," which is when you leave something, usually like a sum of money or stocks, which is held by a third person, called a "trustee," who uses or invests the property for the benefit of the person you name, called the "beneficiary."
Whether you're writing your will by yourself or getting the help of an attorney, getting this information together early, and thinking seriously about who you want to receive your property after you die, can make writing your will a lot easier, and it will help to make sure that all of your property and belongings will be disposed of in accordance with your last wishes.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Should I keep a copy of the deed for home with my will?
- Why do you need my bank account numbers? They're all joint accounts that I hold with my spouse.
- Is it better for me to leave my stock certificates with my stock broker, or should I get the certificates and keep them with my will?