Retirement, Investments, & Insurance for Individuals Build your knowledge 7 doable steps to help you create a will

7 doable steps to help you create a will

A list of assets and an executor are just two of the things you need to help you create a will. 

Couple sitting in kitchen working on updating a will.
4 min read |

Don’t have a will (or haven’t updated yours in a while)? You’re not alone: Only one-third of adult Americans have created a will.


of Americans age 55+ will have a will.

A will might sound like something you don’t need until later in life—when you have more assets or children, for example. But a will is important for every person, at every age. You likely do have assets that matter quite a lot to you, and you might have savings such as a retirement account that may benefit someone should you die. A will is simply a legal document that gives clear instructions what you want to happen to your money and belongings.

“It’s the foundation the rest of your estate plan is built on,” says Stanley Poorman, a financial professional at Principal®. “It contains all the important details that you choose, so a judge doesn’t decide for you.”

A will doesn’t have to be scary, hard, or expensive. Use these seven steps to make a will or update a will you already have.

1. List all your assets.

These might include:

  • Savings and retirement accounts (though these may already have beneficiaries)
  • Investments, including stocks, bonds, and mutual funds
  • Real estate
  • Life insurance policies and annuities
  • Other property such as vehicles, jewelry, and family heirlooms

2. Decide who benefits from your estate when you die.

Without a will, your assets will be distributed according to state laws through a potentially lengthy and complicated process called probate. A will allows you, not a judge, to make these decisions ahead of time.

Note that beneficiaries named on accounts, such as a 401(k), will generally override anything in a will, so keep those up to date. Additionally, property owned jointly, such as a house, doesn’t go through probate, so you don’t have to choose a successor for these items.

Tip: To change your beneficiaries for Principal accounts, log in. On your dashboard, click on each account name (i.e., defined contribution, defined benefit, etc.), then "Overview." Scroll to "Beneficiaries." If you're on the mobile app, click on each account, then on the three horizontal lines in the top right corner; you'll find "Beneficiaries" there.

3. Choose guardians for minor children.

Start by having formal conversations with people you may want to raise your children. Do you share the same goals for child-rearing? Do you have their consent to name them in your will?

A note of caution: Although you may nominate a guardian, the courts will issue a mandate believed to be in the best interest of the child. So be very descriptive when explaining your choice, especially if the named guardian isn’t an immediate family member. Maybe it’s a close relationship, similar belief systems, or a residence in your school district and you don't want your child or grandchild to go through even more changes.

4. Name an executor for your will.

The executor of your estate will be the point person for carrying out the terms of your will. To avoid surprises or conflicts, talk to this person to ensure they’re able and willing. You may want to give them a copy when the will is complete, and make sure that they get a new version if you ever make changes or updates.

5. Create your own will or work with a professional.

If you want, you can consult with an attorney to help answer legal questions and guide you through the will-making process. In some cases, however, you may be able to use a free online tool—especially if you don’t have minor children and have a modest, uncomplicated estate. (If you participate in a retirement plan through Principal or have one of our IRAs, you and your spouse can also access free online resources to prepare your own will and other estate planning documents from ARAG®.)

6. Make your will official.

Most states require your will to be signed by two witnesses who are at least 18 years old and aren’t beneficiaries of your estate. Some states also require it to be notarized. (Search online for “state requirements for wills.”)

7. Update your will as needed.

Once your will is written, revisit it periodically, say, yearly. You may want to change specifics based on events such as family changes (marriages, divorces, adoptions, births, and deaths), moves, or fluctuations in income and net worth.

What’s next?

If you participate in a retirement plan through Principal or have one of our IRAs, you and your spouse can access free online resources to prepare your own will from ARAG. To get started, create an account with ARAG.