Four Wills to Know About

Wills: A Definition & General Requirements

A will is a written or oral communication by a person stating how they want their property disposed of at the time of their death. Before you prepare a will, you should understand that all wills must meet certain general requirements:

  1. You must be 18 years of age or an emancipated minor.

  2. You must be of sound mind: 
    a) Know what a will is and what it does; 
    b) Understand the relationship between you and your immediate family members; 
    c) Know what property you own; 
    d) Understand who the people are to whom you are leaving your belongings (who your beneficiaries are).

  3. You must expressly state that this document is your will.

  4. You must sign and date the will.

  5. You must have the will signed (attested) by at least two or three witnesses – the number of required witnesses depends on state law. In addition, many states require that the witnesses are not related to you and are not beneficiaries.

  6. You must have substantive provisions that: 
    a) Nominate a legal guardian for any minor children; 
    b) List who inherits specific items; 
    c) State what happens to remaining property (residue) not mentioned in the will.

  7. You must appoint an executor who will be: 
    a) Responsible for supervising the distribution of property; 
    b) Responsible for paying all of your debts and taxes;


4 Wills to Know About:

Simple Wills

A simple will distributes property from the estate of a testator whose finances are uncomplicated. Many testators write simple wills themselves, although the assistance of an attorney can help prevent mistakes that might lead to unintended legal consequences. A simple will should be printed instead of handwritten and should include the testator's name, address and marital status; statements indicating which assets are to go to which beneficiaries; a section appointing an executor for the estate and a guardian for the testator's minor children if the other parent is dead; and places for the testator and two or three witnesses (depending on which state you live in) to print and sign their names. The will should include the date the will was signed, rather than the date it was written.

Testamentary Trust Wills

A testamentary trust will is a will that puts at least some of your property into a trust. A trust distributes your assets to a beneficiary but is administered by a third person who controls when and how the property is distributed to the trust beneficiary. You might establish a spendthrift trust, for example, for the benefit of a financially irresponsible beneficiary. The trust administrator would distribute the trust assets gradually instead of presenting them to the beneficiary in lump sum. Although the estate executor and the trust administrator may be the same person, they do not have to be. The format of a testamentary trust will can be similar to that of a simple will.

Joint Wills

A joint will is created by two testators who leave their property to each other -- in other words, the testator who dies first gets everything. In addition, it specifies how the estate will be distributed when the second testator dies. A joint will cannot be revoked without the consent of both testators, meaning that it is irrevocable as soon as one of the testators dies. Like testamentary trust wills, the format of a joint will can be similar to that of a simple will.

Living Wills

Unlike other types of wills, a living will does not distribute property after the death of the testator. Instead, it gives instructions on what type of medical treatment you wish to receive if you become too ill to communicate. For example, you might state that if you become terminally ill and unconscious, you don't want to be hooked up to a feeding tube even if you would die without it. The formal requirements for a living will are more flexible than for a testamentary will, but it should be clear and detailed.