A will is a legal document that contains your instructions as to how you want your property and assets to be distributed after your death. It names the people you want to benefit, as well as details of your possessions at the date of your death.

Every adult should have a will. Without one, you are considered "intestate," which means that the government gets to decide who inherits your property. Although you may not be concerned about the details of your parents' wills now, you need to know that a will exists, and where it is located. You should also know the name of the lawyer who drew it up and the person your parent named as the executor.

How a Will Works

Once a person dies, his or her assets become part of an "estate." An executor is named, and that person is responsible for making sure that the will is carried out as written and that the assets are distributed as directed. The executor can hire someone else, usually a lawyer, to do this job. Generally, a lawyer charges a fee for this service, which is based on the amount of the probated assets.

A valid will must have the following features:

  • It must be in writing - handwritten, typed or printed.
  • It must be signed with your parent's signature at the end of the document.
  • It must be witnessed by at least two other people present at the time of signing. They need to acknowledge they were present and must sign the will as witnesses in your parent's presence. They don't have to be together at the same time of signing.

When creating a will, here are some items to include:

Create a Declaration

  • State your full name and residential address, with a declaration that:
  • You are of legal age to make will and are of sound mind and memory
  • This is your last will and testament, revoking all previously made wills and codicils
  • You are not under duress or undue influence to make this will

Name a Personal Representative or Executor

In an individual will, your parent can name a person or institution to act as personal representative, called an executor in some states, who will be responsible for making sure that the will is carried out as written. You can also name an alternate person, in case the first choice is unable or unwilling to act.

Name Beneficiaries to Get Specific Property

The people you want to benefit are called beneficiaries. Your parents can specify what possessions that they want to go to what people. Your parents may choose different people to inherit cash, personal property, or real estate. The will should also specify whether assets are to go directly to beneficiaries or whether they should to be sold and the value divided among the beneficiaries

Specify Alternate Beneficiaries

A will can also name "alternate beneficiaries." This instructs what should happen if those beneficiaries don't survive.

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Give Directions for Allocating Business Assets

Business assets are often separate from personal assets. If your parents don't have a written plan covering their business, encourage them to see an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that their wishes are clearly indicated in each of their wills.

Specify How Debts, Expenses and Taxes Should be Paid

The will should spell out your parent's wishes regarding how to settle debts and final expenses, such as funeral and probate costs, as well as estate and inheritance taxes. In some cases, a person will name a specific source, such as a bank account, to cover these costs.

Cancel Debts Others Owe

You can also state in your will that people who owed you money, must pay that debt -- along with any interest that accumulated on it -- to your survivors, or beneficiaries.

Indicate Special Instructions for Maintaining Real Estate

If your parents name someone to keep their house, they should list any specific instructions for its care and upkeep.

Name a Caretaker for Pets

The law considers pets to be property. To assure pets have a good home, your parents should name someone in the will who will take possession of the pet. They may also leave that person an amount of money to help cover the expenses of caring for the pet.