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What Is a Will and Why Do I Need One?

You’ve seen it in every kind of movie from horror to comedy. A grieving family gathers around a lawyer’s desk for the reading of the will.

In most of those movies, a greedy young adult is after an older relative’s wealth (think Knives Out). Or the will forces an heir to change their bad behavior to get the inheritance, like in Easy Money.

But those Hollywood wills aren’t like wills in real life.

Normal people don’t use their will to manipulate friends and family—which is good because that’s not what a will is for. And it isn’t just for rich people either.

But if it isn’t for crazy rich people or fixing families, then what is a will and why do you need one?

What Is a Will?

A will—or last will and testament—is a signed, legally binding document that describes exactly how you want your assets (like property, bank accounts and other things you own) to be handled after you die. There are several types of wills, but they all boil down to the same basic document.


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A will can resolve issues as big as dividing the family farm among five siblings or something small, like making sure your nephew gets the pocketknife he admires.

Why Do I Need a Will?

A will helps you protect the people and things you care about the most.

Here’s an example. In your will, you can appoint guardian(s) for children under 18 or adult children with special needs. That means you have the power to choose someone you trust to love and protect your kids when they need it most.

They’re protected because you planned ahead—which also gives you peace of mind. You can feel calm and confident about the future because you know your loved ones won’t have to deal with all the crazy things that can happen if you die without a will.

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What Instructions Are Covered in a Will? 

Of course, a will only protects your family and gives you peace of mind if all the right pieces are there. So, it’s important to make sure that you include at least four things:

An Executor

Writing down your wishes only matters if there’s someone to make sure those wishes get carried out. That’s what your executor—also called a personal representative—does. They’ll read the will and handle all other end-of-life business the way you wanted.

You might hire a lawyer to do this if your will is complicated, but many people simply choose a level-headed, honest relative. An adult child or close family friend will do. Just talk to them first, so they aren’t blindsided by the responsibility.


Beneficiaries are the people who will get your stuff. They’re usually immediate family members, but you can also name extended relatives, good friends, charities you support or anyone else you want.

If you’re married, you could name your spouse as the sole beneficiary, but it’s good to have a backup plan in case your spouse passes away first.

Things get more complicated when you have kids, especially in a blended family. It’s a good idea to tell them exactly who gets what to avoid any confusion or resentment.

If you don’t, they could end up in a years-long feud over your favorite pizza tin or your lawn mower. (Yes, those are real examples, and no, your family won’t handle the situation any better once grief gets thrown into the mix.)

And if you’re single without kids, consider which family members, friends or charities you’d like to give your things to. (Just don’t name your pet—as much as you love Fluffy, a cat doesn’t need your condo.)


This part of your will spells out what each beneficiary gets.

For money, you can set aside a percentage or a dollar amount for each gift. For personal items, give as many details as you need to make sure the right item goes to the right person.

If you’re giving your favorite watch to your closest cousin, describe the watch and name the cousin. Otherwise, your executor may give them the wrong watch—or they might give the right watch to the wrong person.

When you’re choosing what to give to whom, remember: There’s no wrong answer. It’s all up to you! So, take your time, think it through, and leave your assets to people you think will truly treasure them.


If your children are minors or have a lifelong disability, your will should specify who will take care of them when you’re gone.

It should go without saying, but here it is anyway: Talk with the guardians you’d like to choose before naming them in your will! You don’t want to spring the emotional and financial burden of caring for your children on an unsuspecting loved one.

And you definitely don’t want to place your children in the wrong hands. This decision shouldn’t be taken lightly, so make sure to think and talk it over first.

You should also talk to beneficiaries about pet care. Pets are easier to take on than kids, but they’re still a big responsibility. Ask if your beneficiaries are able and willing to take care of Fido—don’t just assume they are!

Complete Guide to Estate Planning

What Is Not Covered in a Will? 

A will can tell your family what to do with everything from your checking account to the kitchen sink, but there are still some things it can’t control. Here are some assets that are handled separately from your will:

  • Retirement Funds: Your company 401(k) or IRA accounts will name beneficiaries in the original documents.
  • Life Insurance Policies: The beneficiaries for your life insurance are also taken care of separately from your will.
  • Joint Tenancy Assets: If you and someone else (like your spouse) hold a joint title to anything (like a house, bank account or vehicle), ownership automatically passes to the survivor.

If you want to change the beneficiaries for these assets, contact the fund, insurance or title companies directly. Changing your will (or adding a codicilwon’t make these documents change too. Instead, your will should reflect what these other documents already say.

Even though your will won’t override the original documents or joint title, it can (and should) tell your loved ones where to find those documents so they can access the rest of your assets. In this case, your will is like a treasure map leading your loved ones where they need to go.

Take the Next Step. You Can Get Started Today.

Now that you understand what a will really is, you’ve probably realized it isn’t anything like what you see in the movies. Instead of creating drama, wills should be focused on protecting the people you care about.

You can now get that protection for your loved ones from the convenience of your home by creating a legally binding, affordable will online. Just as comforting? If you change your mind about anything in your will, you have six months to make adjustments for free.

Don’t wait. Start enjoying the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’re protecting the people you love. Create your online will today with RamseyTrusted provider Mama Bear Legal Forms.

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. Learn More.

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