How to make a will in 7 steps
Creating a will is a big part of smart estate planning—and keeping it updated with accurate information is equally critical. If you haven’t made a will yet, or you have an outdated one that’s collecting dust, you’re not alone. Only 40% of Americans have created one.1
Will Heidbreder, director of business and advanced solutions at Principal®, says people tend to put off the will-making task because death is an uncomfortable topic. “It’s tough to think about the end of life,” he says. “But it’s tougher for the ones we leave behind if we haven’t done that planning.”
A will leaves behind clear instructions for your loved ones, so you have final say over what happens to your money and belongings. “A will is the foundation the rest of your estate plan is built on,” says Stanley Poorman, CFP®, an advice and planning manager at Principal. “It contains all the important details that you choose, so a judge doesn’t decide for you.”
Fortunately, creating a will and keeping it up to date can be pretty easy.
Follow the steps below to make a new will or update the one you already have.
1. List all your assets. These might include:
- Savings and retirement accounts like your 401(k) and any IRAs
- Investments, including stocks, bonds, mutual funds
- Real estate
- Life insurance policies and annuities
- Other property, such as vehicles, jewelry, and family heirlooms
2. Decide who gets what.
Without a will, assets such as your home and belongings will be distributed according to state laws through a legal process called probate—so make these decisions for yourself, rather than leaving it to a judge. Note that beneficiaries named on accounts, such as a 401(k), will generally override anything in a will, so make sure those are up to date. Also, property owned jointly, such as your house, doesn’t go through probate. So you don’t have to choose a successor for these items.
3. If you have minor children, choose their guardians.
Have a clear conversation with potential candidates beforehand to get their consent. 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. Be very descriptive when explaining your choice, especially if it’s not an immediate family member. Maybe it’s a close relationship, similar belief systems, or they live in your school district and you don't want your child to go through even more changes.
4. Put your wishes in writing.
It’s always a good idea to consult with an attorney who can help answer legal questions and guide you through the process. In some cases, however, you may be able to use a free online tool—like 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 through ARAG®. To get started, create an account at principal.com/willprep.
5. Name an executor.
The executor of your estate will be the point person for carrying out the terms of your will. To avoid surprises or conflicts, ask this person if they’re up to the task and give them a copy when the will is complete.
6. Make it official.
Most states require your will to be signed by two witnesses who are at least 18 and aren’t beneficiaries of your estate. Some states also require it to be notarized.
7. Keep your will updated.
Once your will is in place, plan to revisit it periodically. “It’s an ongoing process,” Heidbreder says. “As family and financial situations change over time, it’s important to regularly review wills and estate planning documents.”
Events that might warrant a modification include changes in the family such as marriages, divorces, adoptions, births, and deaths, as well as changes to income and net worth. Review your will and estate planning documents if you move to a new state. If your will requires changes, consider working with an attorney.
Ready to get started?
- Looking for estimates? Start visualizing retirement with your own info by visiting our planning tools and calculators.
- Have a Principal retirement account from your employer? Log in to principal.com to access personalized planning, sign up for our quarterly newsletter, and more. First time logging in? Get started here.
- Interested in starting an individual retirement account (IRA) or consolidating other accounts into your existing one? Call 800-247-8000, ext. 2503 between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. CT. Not familiar with IRAs? Here’s a refresher.
- Got a financial professional? They can help you figure out your next steps. If you’d like to meet with one face-to-face, we’ll help you find one.
1 2019 Caring.com Will and Living Trust Survey
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