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7 Things You Should Consider Including In Your Will

A person’s will outlines what to do in the event that they pass away. Here are seven things you should keep in mind.

Articles by Nick Holeman, CFP®

By Nick Holeman, CFP®
Financial Planning Expert, Betterment  |  Published: August 8, 2019

Your will can be a critical piece of your overall estate plan.

Your will can contain instructions on many aspects including funeral arrangements, who will receive your assets, and who will take care of your children.

Consider speaking with an estate planning attorney before making any adjustments to your will.

A last will and testament, more commonly referred to as simply a “will,” can be an important piece of an estate plan.

Some people write wills themselves, some make them online, and still others work with an estate planning attorney. Regardless of how you prepare your will, you should make sure it is complete and doesn’t omit any of your wishes. Below are seven items you should consider when thinking about your will.

While I do work with estate planning attorneys to help coordinate clients’ estate plans, please note that I am not an attorney. Betterment does not currently offer estate planning services and cannot offer legal advice pertaining to personal assets. This article is purely educational, and you should always consider consulting an estate planning attorney before creating your will.

1. Declaration

A declaration is where you state that this document is in fact your will. It is usually in the beginning of your will, and includes the following:

  • Identifies the testator: Testator is a legal term for somebody who makes a will. It may be smart to include your full name and possibly an address or other identifying information, so as to further confirm your identity.
  • Intent to make a will: This is a statement that this document is to be your will.

2. Executor

An executor is the person who, after you pass away, will work to wrap up your affairs. Executors play a very important role in your will, so you may want to discuss including the following with your attorney:

  • Executor: Make sure it is clear who you wish to serve as your executor. Note that sometimes you can have multiple executors, if you wish.
  • Backup executor: It’s usually advisable to name a backup executor, in case your executor is unable to carry out their duties.
  • Powers of your executor: You can list powers you want to give your executor, and/or any restrictions on those powers.
  • Bond requirement: State if you want your executor to be required to post a bond, or if you allow the bond requirement to be waived. An executor bond can guarantee that the estate will be administered according to what’s outlined in the will. If the executor mishandles the estate’s assets, the bond will protect the beneficiaries and ensure they are compensated.
  • Compensation: State any preference on compensation you wish your executor to receive.
  • Digital executor: Explicitly state a digital executor to whom you give access to your online data. This may be the same person as your executor.

3. Guardian

Consider naming guardian(s) for your minor children. If you don’t do this, your state will usually have laws that will dictate who will be assigned their guardian, and you may not agree with who the laws assign.

Also consider naming a guardian for any pets you have as well.

4. Bequests

A bequest is the act of giving property to a specific person/entity. When you are thinking about your will, consider the following:

  • Specific gifts: If you have any specific gifts such as family heirlooms that you want particular individuals to receive.
  • Distribution of estate: Aside from specific gifts, how do you want the rest of your assets to be distributed? This is often done on a percentage basis.
  • Survivorship clause: A survivorship clause usually states that an individual must survive you by a predetermined amount of days in order to receive any inheritance from you.
  • People who are disinherited: Is there anyone you wish to explicitly disinherit? This is especially important if they would normally receive your assets per state law, i.e. a close family member.
  • No-contest clause: A no-contest clause is used to help discourage your heirs from fighting or sueing over who gets what.

Again, please note that these items can vary state by state, and you should consider consulting with an attorney when drafting these provisions.

5. Final Arrangements

Your will can be a good place to explain your wishes on final arrangements. Consider including instructions such as:

  • Do you want to be buried or cremated?
  • What type of ceremony, if any, do you wish to have?
  • Who should be invited to your ceremony?

6. Verification

Although it will likely vary based on your state and applicable laws,  creating a will typically involves some combination of:

  • Signature: States typically require that the testator sign their will. You should always confirm your state’s specific signature requirements.
  • Notary: Your state may require that your will be notarized.
  • Witness(es): Will creation generally requires that witnesses be present. However, it can vary state by state on how many witnesses are required, what the witness’ relation to the testator is, and a variety of other factors.

7. Logistics

This final section isn’t a particular part of your will document, but rather some best practices.

  • Keep your will updated: It’s usually a good idea to review your will every couple of years, or when you have a major life event (marriage, divorce, death in the family, etc.). As life changes, your wishes may change, so it’s important to keep your will up-to-date.
  • Make sure your executor has access: Make sure your executor either has a copy of the will, or knows where to find it. Your passing will be a stressful time. The last thing you want is for your executor to be unable to locate your will.

Conclusion

A will can be a key part of your estate plan, and it can cover information on numerous topics. It can be easy to forget about some of the above items when drafting your will, so consider keeping the above in mind as you plan.

Not all sections listed may apply to your situation, and each state has its own laws and specific requirements for will creation. Furthermore, Betterment does not offer estate planning services. Because of that, I highly recommend consulting with an attorney before making any changes or drafting your will.

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