You can bequeath property by writing a will. In the will, you’ll name the beneficiary for your property, which is the person who will receive it when you die. Drafting a will is easy, and you can do it yourself. If you change your mind at some point in the future, you can change the beneficiary by drafting a codicil, which is an amendment to your will. However, some property isn’t passed through a will, so you should leave it to your beneficiaries in an appropriate manner.
EditDetermining Your Bequests and Beneficiaries
- Identify your beneficiaries. You can give specific pieces of property to specific people. For example, you might want to give your son your favorite antique car. You can bequeath the property by writing, “I leave to my brother, Karl, my 1966 Ford Mustang.”
- Name alternate beneficiaries. Your first pick might die before you, so you can name someone to inherit the property in their place. For example, you can leave your car to your brother but, if he dies before you, then your nephew will get the car.
- Write in your will, “I leave to my brother, Karl, my 1966 Ford Mustang. If he does not survive me, I leave my 1966 Ford Mustang to my nephew, Isaac Jones.”
- Bequeath property to groups. You can give property to more than one person. For example, you might want to give property to all of your children or all of your grandchildren. You can write in your will, “I leave my 1966 Ford Mustang to my grandchildren who survive me, in equal shares.”
- Make bequests of money. You can give a bequest from a specific account. For example, you might give $5,000 to your sister from your checking account. However, if there’s no money in the account when you die, the money will come from your estate’s general assets.
- To make the bequest in your will, you can write, “I bequeath $5,000 to my sister, Ella, to be paid out of the proceeds from the sale of my stock in Amazon, Inc.”
- Make a general bequest of money. With a general bequest, you don’t have to identify the specific account you pay from. For example, you can write in your will, “I leave $5,000 to my sister, Ella.” The personal representative might sell assets to come up with the money.
- Choose someone to receive the rest of your estate. You don’t have to name a beneficiary for every single thing you own. Instead, you can name a beneficiary for your “residuary estate.” This is everything you own that you haven’t given to a specific beneficiary. Your beneficiary will get what is left after your debts have been paid.
- You can write something like the following in your will: “I give the rest of my estate (the ‘residuary’) to my sister, Eileen Jones. If she does not survive me, I give my residuary estate to my nieces and nephews who survive me, in equal shares.”
EditDrafting Your Will
- Find will templates. You can find sample wills in books or online. Look for a will drafted specifically for your country or state. You’ll need something to use as a guide when you draft your own.
- You might also use will writing software or online programs. These programs make writing a will easy.
- Pick a personal representative. This person will be responsible for guiding your estate through probate after you die. The personal representative (also called an executor) will need to collect all of your property, pay your debts, and distribute property to your beneficiaries. Choose someone you trust and who is responsible.
- Laws sometimes restrict who can serve as a personal representative. For example, many states prohibit someone with a felony conviction from serving. Generally, your personal representative must be at least 18 and be of sound mind.
- Check if you can give the property away. Not all property can be left in a will, so find this out ahead of time. For example, you might live in a community property state: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin.
- If you acquired the property during your marriage, you can only give away half. The other half belongs to your spouse. However, you can give away all of your separate property, which you acquired before marriage or received as a gift or inheritance.
EditFinalizing Your Will
- Sign your will in front of witnesses. The laws in your jurisdiction will determine how many people need to witness you sign. In most U.S. states, you’ll need at least two witnesses, though some states require three. Choose witnesses who don’t receive anything in your will.
- Add a self-proving affidavit. You might not die for decades. At that point, your witnesses might no longer be around to testify that the will is yours. Get around this problem by drafting a “self-proving affidavit” and having your witnesses sign it in front of a notary public.
- Do some research online to find a self-proving affidavit that works for your state. In Florida, for example, the legislature has created an affidavit you can add to your will.
- Ask a lawyer to review your will. Every country or state law is a little different, so you want an attorney to review your will to make sure you have drafted it properly. Find a lawyer by contacting your nearest bar association and asking for a referral.
- Store your will safely. Put it somewhere that is safe but easy to find. You should also give a copy to your personal representative, who will be responsible for filing the will in probate court after you die.
- It’s up to you whether to tell your beneficiaries what they are receiving. You might not want any surprises, in which case you should tell them.
EditAmending Your Will
- Avoid writing on the will. Don’t change your will by crossing out words, tearing out pages, or writing all over the will. Instead, change your will by writing a “codicil,” which is an amendment.
- You can also rewrite the entire will, which is a good option if you used will writing software or an online program. Just include a paragraph stating that you are revoking your prior will.
- Identify what you want to change. You might want to change the beneficiary who receives a piece of property. Take out your will and find the provision you want to change. You can also write a codicil if you’ve acquired new property you want to leave to someone.
- Format your codicil. You can easily change your will by attaching a codicil. Format the document in the same way you formatted your will. Include the following information:
- Title. Mention the name and date of your will. For example, your title might read, “Codicil to Last Will and Testament of Jill R. Jones dated March 1, 1978.”
- Opening paragraph. Write something like, “I, Jill R. Jones, of DuPage County, Illinois, being of sound mind, declare that this Codicil to the Last Will and Testament of Jill R. Jones is effective as of this date, and amends my Last Will and Testament dated March 1, 1978 as follows….”
- State what you are changing. Find the paragraph you want to change. You’ll need to mention it in the codicil. For example, if you want to change the beneficiary of your stamp collection, find the paragraph in your will that includes that bequest.
- Write something like the following: “Paragraph Seven of my Last Will and Testament is hereby amended to read as follows: Paragraph Seven. I leave my stamp collection to Evan Westlake.”
- If you’re adding a paragraph, you can write in your codicil, “My Last Will and Testament is hereby amended to add the following as Paragraph Nine: Paragraph Nine. I hereby leave my diamond bracelet to my daughter, Karen Little.”
- Republish your will. When you’ve made all of your changes, remember to state that you are republishing your will. Also state that your codicil will pre-empt your will if there’s any contradictions between the two documents.
- For example, you can write in your codicil, “Should this Codicil contradict the terms of my Last Will and Testament dated March 1, 1978, the terms of this Codicil shall control. In all other respects, I reaffirm and republish my Last Will and Testament dated March 1, 1978.”
- Sign your codicil. Remember to follow the same formalities you followed when drafting your original will. For example, have the same number of people sign as witnesses. Also make sure the witnesses don’t receive anything under the codicil or will.
- You should also draft a self-proving affidavit for the codicil.
- Attach the codicil to your will. Also give your personal representative a copy of the codicil.
EditLeaving Property Outside Your Will
- Designate a beneficiary on life insurance policies. You don’t name a life insurance beneficiary in your will. Instead, you name the beneficiary on the policy. If you want to change the beneficiary, contact your life insurance company and ask how.
- Name a beneficiary to your retirement account. As with life insurance, you name beneficiaries on your retirement account or pension, not through your will. Contact the companies you have your accounts with to change the beneficiary.
- Create a joint tenancy in your home. You can leave your home to your spouse using a joint tenancy with right of survivorship. On the deed, you’ll need to use the language “as joint tenants with right of survivorship.”
- Both spouses own equal shares in the home while alive. However, when one dies, the survivor will take the entire house.
- Sign a revocable transfer on death deed. Some states allow you to bypass probate if you sign this type of deed. The beneficiary has no rights in your property until you die, and you can change your mind at any time before you die.
- If you use this type of deed, make sure your will doesn’t bequeath the property to someone else. A title insurance company might not issue title insurance if the deed and will disagree.
- If you change your mind, you need to revoke the deed with an instrument of revocation. You can’t revoke the deed with your will.
- Consider creating a life estate. You can also give your home to someone while you are living. You’ll create a life estate deed, which allows you to occupy and use the home during your lifetime. At your death, full ownership passes to the person you named as the remainderman on the deed.
- A life estate deed can be revocable, which means you can change your mind during your life. Alternately, you can make it irrevocable, which means you’ll need the remainderman’s permission to sell the house.
- Consult with an attorney if you are interested in creating a life estate. A qualified attorney can advise you and draft the appropriate documents.