How To Make a Will: A Step-by-Step Guide

Article Summary:

Before writing your will, decide the type of will you need. After that, choose a beneficiary, an executor, and a guardian (if you have children). Finally, sign your will and keep it stored somewhere safe and inform your loved ones where the document is.

Writing a will can be scary. Let’s face it, few of us enjoy contemplating our mortality, never mind planning for it. Despite this, drafting a will is one of the best gifts you can give your loved ones and a way to ensure your final wishes are followed. It can also prevent future heartache and arguments within your close and extended family.

In this article, we’ll cover the steps to writing your will, what you should include within, and why specifics are so valuable throughout this process.

Step 1: Choose the type of will you need

The type of will you need depends largely on your individual needs and situation. Most people will use a simple will, which clearly states that this is your last testament and wishes upon your passing. If your will is taken to court and contested, your will is clear proof of what you want to be done with all your assets.

You may wish to choose a different style of will depending on your wishes and those of your spouse.

  1. Simple (or basic) will. A simple will lets you name who you want to take care of your assets, who will be the guardian of your minor children and pets, and who your executor will be.
  2. Pour-over will. Pour-over wills are used in conjunction with a living trust. This type of will avoids the time and cost of probate court, as your assets are automatically transferred to a living trust once you die.
  3. Mirror will. As the name suggests, mirror wills are identical copies written by a married couple or domestic partners. Each individual leaves their partner the entire estate and names the same people or organizations are secondary beneficiaries.
  4. Joint will. Similar to a mirror will, a joint will ensures that your partner will be financially taken care of when you die. This is a single document that outlines both your and your spouse’s final wishes. You each sign the document, which cannot be altered without both signatures.
  5. Holographic will. Though it sounds futuristic, a holographic will is simply handwritten and signed. Some holographic wills don’t even have witnesses. That being said, the validity of this will type differs depending on individual state laws.
  6. Nuncupative will. A nuncupative will is given orally, which can make them difficult to validate. Most estate attorneys advise against this type of will, as some states do not recognize nuncupative wills and those that do have very specific requirements.

IMPORTANT! Note that a “living will” is not listed among these options. Whereas the above wills outline your final wishes after you pass, a living will contains instructions for your care if you become critically injured and cannot verbalize your wishes.

Step 2: Decide what assets to include

You can include whatever you want in your own will, but there are a few essential items to include in every draft. This includes:

  • Bank and retirement accounts
  • Your life insurance policy
  • Personal property and family heirlooms
  • Children and pets

Your personal property includes any vehicles and real estate you own, so be sure to list it all. In addition, make sure to list any pets you have alongside your other property. Though they may feel like children, the law considers pets property that must have a named caretaker or guardian.

Step 3: Choose your beneficiaries

Once you’ve outlined all of your assets, you’ll need to decide who gets what. If you have your own family, you may decide to leave everything to them. You may also choose to leave most of your estate to your family and have any remaining funds go to other family members or a charity of your choice.

Whoever you decide, make sure to clearly state who they are and what you are leaving them. If your will arrives in probate court, specificity will help ensure everyone knows what they’re getting. It also limits any disputes your beneficiaries may have between themselves.

IMPORTANT! Your last will cannot override a property deed. If the deed lists both you and your spouse as co-owners, then your spouse will receive the property regardless of what you list in your will.

Step 4: Pick your executor

Your executor carries out your final wishes by reviewing your will, distributing your assets to the appropriate beneficiaries, and paying any remaining debts you may have.

To officially nominate an executor, you must name the individual in your will. Though it may go without saying, make sure to inform this person of their role as your executor if you die. This is a huge job for someone who may also be grieving for you, so having this delicate conversation is critical to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Because of the responsibilities involved in being an executor, it’s important to choose someone you trust and who has your best interests in mind. Most people choose their spouses, siblings, close friends, or one of their adult children to be their executors. You can also hire an attorney or accountant to take this responsibility, but this doesn’t come without a cost.

Pro Tip

You can also designate someone as a backup executor in case the first person you chose is unable or unwilling to carry out the necessary duties. This includes letting that person know and naming them in the will as well.

Step 5: Choose guardians for your children

This is one of the most important steps when writing your will. If you have any minor children (children under the age of 18), naming a guardian will help keep your child out of the foster care system. Though your child’s other parent will typically gain full custody if you pass, you should consider an additional guardian in the event that both parents pass. If no guardians are named, and no one volunteers to care for your child, the court may decide where your child goes.

Similar to choosing your executor, make sure you choose a guardian you believe will care for your children as you would. Speak with your potential guardian to ensure they know of their future responsibilities. You can always designate a backup guardian if you worry the first individual you named may not fulfill your wishes.

If you’re concerned about the financial burden the guardian may face, consider life insurance or opening a savings account to ensure your child and guardian are taken care of.

Step 6: Sign in front of witnesses

After you choose your beneficiaries, guardians, and executor, you must sign the completed will to make it valid. Most states require you to sign in front of two witnesses, neither of which can be your executor, beneficiary, or guardian. After you sign, your witnesses will also each sign to make the document legally valid and binding.

In addition to signing the will, some states require your witnesses to sign a self-proving affidavit. This document is basically your witnesses’ testimony that they saw you sign your will and, while doing so, you appeared to be of sound mind. Though it may sound unnecessary, a self-proving affidavit can come in handy if your will is ever questioned in court.

Step 7: Keep your will in a safe place

Now that your will is complete and signed, you need to keep it somewhere safe. This could be in a lockbox or fireproof safe, or even a safe deposit box. You may even decide to keep it at the law firm responsible for distributing your assets.

Wherever you decide to keep your own will, it may be smart to have other important documents in the same place. This can include your estate planning documents, your life insurance policy, any funeral instructions, as well as any contact information or online passwords you want your executor to have.

Step 8: Inform your executor and loved ones where your will is kept

Once you’ve organized all your important documents, also known as a legacy drawer, tell your family members and executor where you’ve stored your will. After all, a lost will is pretty useless for everyone involved.

If there’s anyone included in your will that you haven’t spoken to yet, now may be the time to do so. Let them know of their position in the will and of any responsibilities you expect them to take on. A will reading is not a place for surprises.

Step 9: Update your will as necessary

Just because your will is drafted doesn’t mean it has to be the final version. Depending on your personal situation, you may have drafted your will when you were much younger, perhaps right after your children were born. A lot of things could happen since that time.

Even if no major life events occur, it’s best to review your will every five years or so to determine whether an update is necessary. Regardless of how much time has passed, we recommend updating your will if any of the following events occur:

  • Marriage or divorce
  • Birth of your children or grandchildren
  • Move to a different state
  • Death of a guardian, beneficiary, or executor
  • Purchase of land or property

Pro Tip

If you have previous drafts of your will, clearly state that any previous drafts are null and void to prevent confusion.

The dos and don’ts of making a will

There’s a lot to keep in mind when drafting a will. In addition to the steps above, keep these dos and don’ts in mind when drafting your own will.


Here is a short list of what to do (and not to do) when drafting a will.

  • Name an alternative executor and guardian
  • Express your desire to donate assets to friends or charities
  • Consider working with a real person (especially if you have a substantial estate), not just an online program
  • Work with an estate attorney who knows your state’s law well
  • Put it off, as this will only delay the process
  • Think other written statements or documents can substitute for a will
  • Get lost in the details
  • Overly focus on searching for an alternative executor


How long after death is a will read?

Your executor will inform your next of kin within 60 days of being appointed. In this case, “being appointed” does not refer to when the will owner designates the executor. Instead, after the will owner passes, the will is sent to probate court where an executor is officially named (usually the person named in the will).

Which type of will is best?

There is no “best” type of will for every person. Depending on your situation and personal beliefs, you may wish to include information or assets that few people possess. Though holographic and nuncupative should be avoided altogether, a written will (whatever the formatting) is generally the “best” will for communicating your final wishes.

What is the difference between a will and a testament?

Nowadays, these terms are used interchangeably. However, in the early 20th century, wills primarily focused on estates and real property of the deceased, while testaments handled any personal property.

Key Takeaways

  • Even though making a will is depressing and scary, it’s vital that you leave clear instructions for your loved ones after you pass.
  • There are six different types of wills. Make sure you do your research to find out which is best for you and your situation.
  • Have a conversation with your executor and guardians before appointing them in your will. They may end up being the wrong person for the job.
  • Once you sign your will, keep it in a safe place and inform your loved ones about your hiding spot.
  • Review your will every five years or so and see if it requires any updates.
View Article Sources
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