A will is a legal document that outlines your assets and how you want them handled after you pass. It’s an important piece of a solid estate plan and ensures your loved ones will be taken care of in your absence.
Wills typically specify the assets you’d like distributed — including any money, personal possessions, real estate, or other items — and explains how you’d like them to be distributed in the event of your death. They often name a beneficiary or beneficiaries who will receive your assets and an executor or trustee who will manage and distribute them.
Types of wills
There are four main types of wills: simple, testamentary trust, joint, and living wills. Each type is meant for different situations, satisfying varying individual needs and circumstances.
Simple wills are the most common type of will — and the type most people associate with the concept of a will. They outline how you’d like your assets to be handled and how and where they should be distributed.
Simple wills typically name an executor or trustee to manage your estate. That person will be responsible for handling administrative tasks, like closing bank accounts, paying any outstanding debts, and distributing money, personal property, or real estate to your beneficiaries. Simple wills are also the place where you can designate a guardian for your children.
You can create this type of will using an online template. However, using an estate planning lawyer will ensure you properly follow the law and stay within your state’s guidelines.
Testamentary trust will
Testamentary trust wills, or testamentary trusts, place your assets into a trust for your beneficiaries to access after you pass. These pre-arranged trust accounts are meant to be set up by your named trustee, who will manage your assets and trust account for you, after you die.
Testamentary trusts are most useful when your beneficiaries are still minors and will need help handling their inheritance. This type of will places your assets into a trust with conditions regarding who will receive them, when, and how.
For example, a testamentary trust could specify that a minor will receive a lump sum of money when they turn 18, or that they’ll receive their assets in set amounts on a monthly or yearly basis starting at age 21. Your trustee will be responsible for managing these assets in the meantime, as well as when they’re being distributed.
Also called mirror wills, joint wills are made by two or more people and consist of separate wills for each person. This type of will is most often used by couples who want to name each other as their sole beneficiaries. Together, they write two nearly identical wills that designate the other as such.
What makes joint wills a bit more complicated is their binding nature. Once these wills are created, they can’t be altered, making them problematic should either person’s wishes change or the couple separates.
Unlike other types of wills, living wills don’t specify what happens to your assets after you die, but rather what happens to you in the time leading up to your death. They provide a place to outline how you’d like to be taken care of medically, should you become incapacitated or unable to make those decisions yourself.
Typically, living wills specify which medical treatments you’re willing or unwilling to undergo, and name a healthcare proxy or a healthcare power of attorney to make medical decisions for you. This is also where you can include a DNR (do not resuscitate) order if you wish.
Because living wills aren’t concerned with asset distribution, it’s perfectly legal to create an additional will — usually a simple will — to determine how your property is handled after your death. This ensures all of your bases are covered.
Other types of wills
In addition to the four main types of wills, there are several less common forms that can be utilized for certain circumstances.
A pour-over will provides instructions for all of your assets to be moved into a pre-existing trust — often a living revocable trust — rather than individually distributing each. This allows the executor to control all of your assets, not just the ones that were already included in the trust. Pour-over wills are a kind of blanket will, ensuring all of your assets are accounted for after your passing.
Holographic wills are handwritten documents created without witnesses or any legal presence. They can include whatever you’d like, but typically outline directions for your assets, like a simple will. However, because these wills are created by hand and often lack witness signatures, they can be deemed invalid in court.
If you really want to write a holographic will without assistance, consult your state’s laws on their validity — but know you’re putting your crucial wishes at risk.
Oral wills, also known as nuncupative wills, are verbal instructions for how to handle your assets. Usually, oral wills aren’t considered valid. But if they are, they must meet strict requirements determined by your state. North Carolina, for example, allows oral wills if your death is imminent and you don’t have the time to go through the formal process.
What type of will do I need?
The type of will you’ll need depends on your individual circumstances. Often, a simple will is sufficient. However, if you have minor beneficiaries, are concerned about your end-of-life care, or have additional needs, one of the other available types of wills may be better suited for you.
Seek out legal advice from an attorney if you’re not sure which will to choose — their expertise can ensure that your wishes are carried out.