According to a May 2016 Gallup poll, only 44% of Americans say they have a will in place to protect their legacy when they pass away. This is 7% lower than a prior poll conducted in 2005.

What accounts for the number slipping below 50%? And why was it so low to begin with? Are so many of us avoiding it because we're uncomfortable at the thought of death? Or are we confused about what's involved in getting a will drafted? Whatever the reason, it's obvious that Americans do not take protecting their assets seriously enough.

If it's the mystery surrounding wills that is keeping you from getting one, this article should help. It will give you an understanding of what to include in your will to ensure that your wishes will be met.

Assigning an Executor

The first thing you want to do is to assign an executor. This is probably the most important step.

The executor of your will is the designated person who will oversee your estate after you pass away. This position requires someone who is detail-oriented and able to handle a great deal of responsibility. An executor can be anyone you choose – your spouse, an adult child, a trusted friend.

Your executor could be responsible for:

  • Funeral arrangements
  • Protecting your assets
  • Administrating trusts (see Your Basic Guide to Trusts to learn more)
  • Paying final bills and dealing with debt collectors

In addition to a primary executor, you should also appoint a secondary in case the primary is either unable or unwilling to perform their duties.

Appointing a Guardian

Every parent who is getting their affairs lined up is concerned with guardianship of their children. You will want assurance that your children will not be appointed to a stranger by the courts if they lose both their parents before reaching adulthood.

When appointing a guardian for your children, take these things into consideration:

  • The age and health of the candidate
  • Their availability and willingness to be a guardian
  • Their financial means
  • How far your children would have to relocate
  • Religion and lifestyle

Like executors, you can name a secondary guardian in case your first choice cannot fulfill the responsibility. You could also appoint separate guardians for each child.

If the children inherit trusts, you do not have to name the guardian as trustee over that inheritance. You can appoint someone else to be the conservator of a minor child’s money and ensure that it benefits them fully.

Naming Beneficiaries

In this part of your will, you will be able to distribute your assets as you see fit.

When you name beneficiaries, it is best to be as specific as possible. Use the full name and birth date of the inheritor and describe the item you are leaving them in detail, right down to color and model number.

Unlike insurance, you can name as many beneficiaries as you need to.

Outlining Assets

This area will cover anything that is not laid out or assigned to a beneficiary. This can include property, bank accounts, and trusts.

Just as you would with personal items, be as specific as you can with names and descriptions of your assets.

Clarifying Burial Wishes

While the executor oversees funeral arrangements, your will can include an account of how you would like your remains to be dealt with. If this is not spelled out, the decision is left to the executor. Their decision could be at odds with another member of your family, even if the executor is acting out your wishes based on a conversation they've had with you. For that reason, it is always best to leave a detailed explanation of your burial wishes (have A Look at Burial Insurance to find out whether it's the right option for you).

Crucial Signatures

If you are writing a will without the help of an attorney or legal service provider, then make sure you get it as legal as you can.

Your signature with the date on the document is crucial. It will also help if you sign or initial each page of the will.

In addition to your own signatures, you will need a minimum of two signatures from witnesses, also with dates, their full name, and address. These witnesses cannot have any interest in the will itself. In other words, they cannot be named in your will as executor, guardian, or beneficiary.

The most important thing to remember is to make your will as detailed and as legal as possible. The more details you include, the fewer opportunities there will be for someone who feels entitled to some of your assets to contest the will. This is another reason to have two witnesses with all their information. They make your document valid without the need for notarization or other legal services.

So, What Are You Waiting For?

Setting up a will is a fairly straightforward process. Even though it might involve making a few tough decisions, having a document outlining exactly how you want your assets dealt with will make things much easier for those who survive you.

If you're one of more than 50% of Americans who are without a will, now you know that there's nothing intimidating about them. So, what are you waiting for? Do yourself and your family a favor and take this important life planning step.