1. Make a list of all of your assets.
Only you know the full extent of what you own. A list of your property- bank accounts, IRA's, stocks, bonds, real estate, business interests, etc.- lets your beneficiaries know where those assets are. If this isn't done, some of your property may be overlooked or, worse yet, considered abandoned and taken by the state.
2. Contact an estate planning lawyer and go for a consultation.
Most lawyers will offer a free (limited time) consultation to tell you what you need to protect your assets, and discuss the cost. Be sure to go to an estate planning lawyer with expertise in the area, not just any lawyer that you know. Wills and estates are a separate, specialty area of the law and not every lawyer will know how to maximize the tax and other cost savings for you and your heirs.
3. Describe who you want to get your assets, how much, and when.
Go over your list of assets with your lawyer., and leave them a copy. You should then review with your lawyer how you would like your property distributed to the people that you care about. You lawyer will tell you the most advisable, cost-effective way to distribute your assets. Your lawyer will know the proper legal wording to put in the will and other documents to see that your wishes are carried out.
4. Choose an executor to be sure that your wishes are carried out.
Your lawyer will explain that you name an executor in your will to carry out the distribution of your estate in exactly the way that you have directed. Your executor should be someone that you trust and who knows your family and financial situation. Most people choose their spouse or a responsible adult child to be their executor. You will need an alternate choice, in case the person you pick is unable to perform the task. The attorney will guide the executor through the estate process, and, where there are choices to be made, the executor will make the choices based upon what he or she believes your wishes would be. All of the real work of probating the will or executing your trust will be done by the lawyer for your estate, who will guide and help your executor or trustee through the process.
5. Review your will and sign it in the lawyer's office.
Be sure to read your will and go over it with your lawyer. Ask any questions that it raises. Your lawyer wants to get the wording exactly right so that your wishes are carried out. State law requires a specific signing ceremony be observed in order for the will to be probated. This is why you need an attorney and can't just sign a will form in front of a notary. Most people who attempt to do their wills this way end up without a valid will. The witnesses used must be disinterested parties. Your lawyer will guide you through the signing ceremony, and will provide the witnesses and the notary. You will receive a copy of the signed will. Be sure that you keep your lawyer's contact information in your records, so that you or your family can reach your lawyer if any problem or question arises, or in the event of your death. After the will has been done, you will feel a sense of relief knowing that you have provided the proper legal protection for your family.