A will is a legal document that provides instruction for the desired disposition of property belonging to a testator (the maker of the will) upon death. It identifies individuals and institutions that the testator wishes to bequeath his or her estate to. These individuals or institutions are commonly referred to as beneficiaries or devisees.

The will is one of the most basic estate planning devices. Even individuals intending to transfer most of their property through other estate planning methods, such as living trusts, generally also need a will. For example, a will serves as a backup device to transfer any property that might have been overlooked or property unexpectedly acquired after estate planning documents are already set up, such as an inheritance or prize winnings. Lawyers who prepare living trusts almost always write this type of simple will (known as a pourover will) when setting up a trust. Also, a will is the only document that can be used to name a personal guardian for minor children. And a will is the best way to transfer various types of property which aren’t conveniently transferred by other methods, such as some personal bank accounts.

The will appoints a personal representative, called an executor or administrator, who gathers and distributes the testator’s property upon his or her death, pays the estate's bills, and takes care of other estate business. The executor may be an individual or an institution. Common choices for this role include a primary beneficiary under the will (such as an adult child), an attorney, or a financial institution that manages the testator’s assets.

In most states, any person who has reached the age of majority and is of sound mind may make a will. The concept of “sound mind” simply infers that the person understands what they’re doing by executing a will. People are generally presumed to have this capacity unless someone proves otherwise. A person who makes a will may leave their estate to anyone that they choose, including organizations or companies, with few exceptions. In most states, the only prohibited beneficiaries are animals, the father of an illegitimate child who has not acknowledged or provided support for the child, or a potential beneficiary who intentionally kills the decedent.

The requirements for the implementation of a valid will vary from state to state. Generally, the will must be in writing and signed by the testator in the presence of one or more witnesses, who also must sign the will in the presence of the testator and other witnesses. Many states require the witnesses to be "attesting witnesses," which means that they can generally attest to the testator's capacity to legally make a will.

A will may be the only estate planning device necessary for people whose estates simply do not warrant more complex methods. For example, a couple who already owns their home in joint tenancy (a form of property ownership in which each spouse's interest in the asset automatically passes to the other upon their death) and has a modest estate may be well-served with just a will. Even so, a qualified attorney should review the couple's will to ensure that it meets their state's requirements for validity. The value of their gross assets, which could appreciate significantly over the years, should also be verified to guarantee that the estate has not grown into the taxable range. In addition, the plan that they’ve created should also be evaluated to make sure that it doesn’t precipitate problems with other laws, such as community property of spousal allowances. The key is to make sure, whether using a will or more complex planning device, that adequate coverage is provided for all beneficiary and estate needs.

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