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Types of Wills: Which Is Right for You?

NEW! Listen to this article. (Read by George Kamel)


Understanding the different kinds of wills doesn’t have to be confusing. We’ll break them down so you can make an informed decision and create one that’s right for you. And it doesn’t have to be a painful experience—or an expensive one, either.

Living Wills

Even though the names are similar, a living will is not a last will and testament. A living will is a document that explains your wishes for your end-of-life medical care if you can’t speak for yourself. It lets you maintain control of your life and future even if you’re seriously injured or become terminally ill. Every state handles living wills differently, so make sure yours is done to match your state’s requirements.


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But sometimes it comes down to if you would rather have a piece of paper  or someone you trust making important life decisions. This is where a medical power of attorney comes in. A living will is limited to what you knew when you wrote it. With a medical POA, the person you named (like your spouse or trusted friend) knows what you would want done under the circumstances and would make the best possible choice that included new medical procedures or treatments. There are a few differences between the two, so make sure you do some research and make the best decision for your own circumstances.

Joint Wills

A joint will is a document created by two people who leave their stuff to each other. Think husband and wife. In it, the couple agrees that when one spouse dies, the other inherits the whole estate.

When the surviving spouse dies, their stuff goes to someone the couple named together. It’s a single document two people sign. A mutual will does the same thing, only it involves two wills that both spouses sign.

Joint wills were popular back in the day when wills were written or typed (like on a typewriter) because it saved time and money.

But now, they can be a big headache. That’s because the surviving spouse can’t change a joint will even after the death of their spouse. So if a surviving spouse remarries and has a stepchild, they can’t leave anything in the joint will to that stepchild.

The same problem applies to mutual wills. If you and your spouse use either of these wills, your family will likely end up in Headache City.

A better option is a mirror will. Also called a reciprocal will, this option includes two wills that are drafted almost identically, but they have different names as testators (the people making the will) and are signed individually.

Often, mirror wills state that the surviving spouse inherits the estate and cares for the kids, but other details may be different. That’s why it’s important to get with a financial advisor so you can make sure all your bases are covered within the will.

Because mirror wills are actually two different wills, part of the estate can go to someone besides the surviving spouse. So you can leave the antique family brooch to your sister or cousin, and leave the rest of your stuff to your spouse.

The other advantage of a mirror will is the ability to change it. This can be important if you remarry or go through a divorce. That flexibility is one of the reasons financial experts like Dave Ramsey recommend mirror wills.

Holographic Wills

Nope, a holographic will wasn’t invented at a sci-fi convention. It’s a last will and testament that is written and signed by hand. Believe it or not, these wills are still around. People in life-threatening situations (a soldier in a combat zone, for example) may write one if they think they might not survive.

But not all states accept holographic wills as valid, so if you have one, make sure it’s accepted where you live. That’s one of the problems with handwritten wills. With today’s technology, it’s a whole lot easier to create a will online and save your family the possible heartache and frustration.

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Nuncupative Wills

Despite the way the word sounds, a nuncupative will has nothing to do with a prenuptial agreement. A nuncupative will is a last will and testament that’s spoken out loud instead of written down. This kind of will is made because the testator (person making the will) may pass away soon.

Nuncupative wills have rules that differ from state to state, much like holographic wills. Sometimes, a testator (person stating their wishes aloud) has to be dying. 

In some states, a nuncupative will is valid only if three or more people witness the person speaking. Some states require a nuncupative will to be written down after being spoken, and other states won’t recognize a spoken will at all.

Deathbed Wills

A deathbed will is exactly what it sounds like—you create it if you’re facing certain death. You can write and sign it by hand, or you can type it out and sign it in the presence of witnesses.

No matter how you create it, these wills can cause all sorts of problems. They’re often filled with errors because they’re written so quickly. And it’s harder to prove them as valid.

Since you make them when you’re under a lot of stress or pain, your mental state may be questioned. There’s a chance you might leave out some of your assets too, so that means the court would decide what happens to them. Nobody wants that.

Living Trusts

A living trust doesn’t count as a type of will, but since they’re often created as people are drawing up their last wills, you might have heard about them.

A living trust is a legal document that transfers ownership of your assets to the trust, so it actually owns your stuff even though you’re still alive. It also spells out how to distribute your stuff after you pass away.

Nothing in a living trust has to deal with probate costs though, which is a plus. And since it’s technically a private document, a living trust gives you a measure of privacy that wills can’t give you.

Living trusts come in two flavors: revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts. You can’t change an irrevocable trust, hence the name. There are benefits and drawback to both kinds, so make sure you know the differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts.

Testamentary Trusts

A testamentary trust is a trust that’s written inside a will. It’s also called a will trust or a trust under will. Creative names, right?

A testamentary trust distributes all or part of your estate (your stuff) after you die, but the trust is not created until after you die. It’s different than a living trust, which is created while you’re still alive. You can create more than one testamentary trust within your will.

A will trust is often used when you want to provide for a disabled relative or a minor, or if you want someone to receive their inheritance at a later time. Typically, the assets (money, jewelry, land, etc.) within a trust are held until a specific time—like a person’s 25th birthday or after their college graduation.

Since the testamentary trust is inside a will, it has to go through probate after you pass away.

And until the person (or people) named in the trust receives their inheritance, the trustee (person who carries out the trust) has to go to probate court every year to prove they are taking care of your stuff as instructed and aren’t using it for personal gain. Those probate costs could add up over the years.

Simple Wills

A simple will is a basic will without any fancy clauses or stipulations. Despite its name, you can do a lot with a simple will. You can declare how you want your stuff given away and who gets it.

You can also choose the person (called a personal representative or executor) who will make sure your will is carried out and name a guardian for your kids if something happens to you. And you can even name the person you want to care for your favorite ferret. A simple will can cover a lot of ground.

Which Type of Will Is Right for You?

The kind of will you choose depends on a lot of factors, including how much money you have, whether or not you own a business, and if you have property that’s stayed in your family for multiple generations. With all the different kinds of wills out there, you can find the right one for your situation.

Fortunately, you don’t have to go to a lawyer’s office or spend a fortune to have your will created. You can create your own will online with RamseyTrusted provider Mama Bear Legal Forms in less than 20 minutes! All you have to do is plug in your information, and the rest is done for you.

Creating a will is one of the most important and most loving things you can do for your family. And now, since you know their different features, you can get your will done and mark it off your list!

Ramsey Solutions

About the author

Ramsey Solutions

Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners.

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