When it comes to the new year, people are often focused on new beginnings—goals centered around productivity, health, and reading more books. But although it doesn’t have the shiny promise of “new beginnings,” if you’re coming into this year without a will, it should be one of your new year’s goals to create one. Of course, you may not know where to start when it comes to how to create a will.

“Starting with just making decisions and setting a deadline goes a long way,” says Theresa Clancy, a lawyer based in Oak Park, Illinois who operates under Theresa Clancy Law, where she exclusively practices estate planning. “Three hundred and fifty clients later, the one statement that everyone says is, ‘This is something that’s been on my mind for so long, and I’m so glad I’m finally doing it.’”

Simply put, a will outlines how you would like your assets distributed after you die or become incapacitated and names a guardian for any minor children you have. By getting one into place before you pass or become incapacitated, you can help prevent your loved ones from having to make hard and costly decisions. 

Although it can seem intimidating, a will consists of only a few elements and steps, all of which can generally be completed in an afternoon (barring an overly complicated estate).

How to create a will in 5 steps

1. Find an estate planning attorney or a DIY program

If you have a simple financial situation, you may be able to use an online software program to complete your will such as Quicken or Legal Zoom. In cases where you don’t have a lot of assets and just need to name guardianship, a DIY software program may be the easiest and most cost effective way to ensure your children are taken care of in case you do pass.

However, Clancy recommends assessing how likely you are to finish what you start. “Know thyself,” she says. “A DIY can muck things up since most people end up never getting to the finish line. If you’re really good at crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s, it might work. But you need the witnesses and the notary, and coordinating that is often what gets people stuck.”

That coordination includes finding a notary and witnesses, which an estate-planning attorney will always have ready. And although software programs often have an expert on hand for questions, once things get complicated or you need to add in a trust, an attorney becomes vital in navigating your estate planning.

Keep in mind that whatever you have as your first draft can be amended. If it’s cost prohibitive now, do what you can without spending a lot of money in order to have something in place, even if it’s just naming guardianship. You can—and should—always revisit your will later on.

Related: 9 things to do to set your child up for a smart financial future

2. Identify your assets 

In order to give things to your beneficiaries, you need to outline what you have. To begin, make a list of all your significant assets. This includes real estate and land, jewelry, artwork, cars, and bank accounts that don’t name a beneficiary in the paperwork. 

More recently, cryptocurrency has made its way into wills and estate planning, something that Clancy says can cause a lot of problems. “People inherit cryptocurrency, but then nobody knows how to access it. It’s personal property, so it doesn’t have a titling or a financial institution that’s in charge of it.”

That’s why she stresses no only documenting your assets, but also how to access any digital files involved. Passwords and logins should be something your executor can access if and when you pass, and you should at the very least have a list of your assets very clearly defined so that nothing is falling between the cracks. 

And although you might think of them as part of your family, your pets count as property, too. Make sure to identify how you want them to be cared for in the event of your passing.

3. Name the beneficiaries

Once you’ve created a list of your assets, then you can think about who you want to have them. The beneficiaries are the people who will inherit your assets if and when you pass. Most often, these will be your spouse or children or other members of your family. 

In the case of your beneficiaries passing before you, you should also have alternate or contingent beneficiaries who can inherit your assets.

Be specific in writing out who gets what. The more detail you give, the less chance there is for dispute or confusion when you pass.

4. Designate an executor

Along with naming beneficiaries, you will also want to name an executor. This is the person who will oversee the probate process, and distribution of assets, and the payments of your debts and taxes. 

In naming an executor, you should choose someone who is responsible and detail-oriented. This person doesn’t need to be a lawyer, as they can hire a lawyer in the event of your passing. However, be sure that the person you name is willing to take on this responsibility, as it can be both complicated and emotionally draining. Keep in mind, too, that you should not only name an executor, but also a contingent executor in case the initial person named is no longer able to carry out the responsibilities of the role.

“People don’t realize they can do a backup. They think, oh, my parents are getting older, so they might not be able to do it in the future—that’s why you name a backup,” says Clancy.

5. Appoint a guardian for your children

Normally, when one parent passes, the other can get custody of the minor children, but the process isn’t clearly defined for every family—especially when there’s a single parent already or the other parent has passed, too. 

“Choosing who is taking care of a kid is often the hardest part, and people don’t often want to make that decision—so they don’t,” says Clancy. “But if you don’t make a decision, somebody has to, and it doesn’t seem fair to make someone else do it. As you can imagine, when two different families want the role, guardianship can turn ugly. You’re best off having somebody named instead of nobody named.”

In choosing who you want to take care of your children in the event of your passing, Clancy recommends thinking about who you would want to watch over them now

“People worry about, say, naming their parents and then passing when their child is a teenager and their parents not being able to handle that in their old age. You can drive yourself nuts with that, and it inhibits you from doing anything. But I think people just have to think: okay, for the next three to five years, who is the best person?” says Clancy. “You can always revisit that.”

Because of the responsibility this position can entail, it’s essential for you to talk to your chosen guardian to be sure they are up for the role. And, as with every responsibility role, you can and should always name a back-up in the event that the appointed guardian can’t take on the responsibility.

Review and update as your life develops

Clancy recommends that you update your will every six to eight years, but it can be sooner if you have a life event that affects how and when your assets will be divided. This includes (but isn’t limited to):

  • Getting married
  • Getting divorced
  • Having a child or grandchild
  • Buying property
  • Moving
  • The death of one of your beneficiaries or executors

Legally, you don’t have to inform the people in your will of any changes, but it’s helpful if you do. That way, they have a firm understanding of their role and any updates to that role if you pass.

Store a living will safely

After you have your will completed, you should store it in a safe and easily accessible place, such as a safe, a safety deposit box, or an attorney’s office—and let the people named in responsibility roles in your will know where that place is and how to access it.

To make things easy for your executor, guardians, and beneficiaries, you should also make sure your will is kept with any and all relevant information including titles and deeds, insurance policy information, and online password information.

Along with completing a will, Clancy recommends covering all of your bases. “Doing a will and doing powers of attorney are almost equally important,” she says. “The state has a plan for your assets if you don’t have one in place. It may be what you want, but if you become incapacitated, your family will have to go through guardianship court—and that’s a nasty, brutal place.”

Although the process can be intimidating, making a will protects your loved ones and leaves them with a plan in place when you pass.

A version of this post was published January 19, 2022. It has been updated.

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