DEFINITION of 'Will'

A will, also known as a Last Will and Testament, is a legally enforceable declaration of how a person wants his property or assets to be distributed after death. In a will, a person can also recommend a guardian for his minor children and make provisions for any surviving pets.

BREAKING DOWN 'Will'

Making a will is a very important component of estate planning. In it, the writer expresses his decisions about who gets his belongings and assets when he dies. If an individual dies without leaving a will, the distribution of his property is left up to the government, and may even end up becoming state property. A will ensures that the person's wishes are carried out, and it can make things easier for his heirs.

The Executor

In the will, the writer names an executor for his estate. This person is charged with overseeing the liquidation and distribution of the decedent's assets according to the terms of the will, and paying off outstanding debts and taxes on the estate. An executor may be an attorney or financial expert, but it can be anyone the writer of the will trusts to act responsibly. The executor may be entitled to receive a reasonable fee for his services. Fee guidelines may be mandated by the state.

Elements of a Will

Although the format of wills can vary, most follow a fairly uniform layout. The document usually begins with a statement that the writer is of legal age and making the will freely and without duress. It also attests to the writer's mental soundness at the time the will was made. This section establishes the writer's identity and includes an explicit statement that this final will rescinds all previous documents.

After naming an executor and guardian for any minor children, the will should discuss insurance policies that already have a named beneficiary. This section may also itemize joint bank accounts and property that is co-owned with other individuals.

The bequest section of the will specifies beneficiaries for all the deceased person's property or assets, except for insurance policies and joint accounts already covered in a preceding section. Clear and reasonable instructions are important for preventing possible legal challenges that could delay probate and create significant legal expenses.

A will may also include instructions about the writer's funeral and burial wishes. If the decedent has made prior arrangements for a burial plot or funeral expenses, those will usually be discussed in this section.

Most states require that the will be witnessed by two individuals and signed by the writer at the end of the document. After death, the will is submitted to the probate court of the county or city in which the individual resided. The probate process can be fairly quick or protracted, depending on the complexity of the estate and whether there are legal challenges to the will.

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