The argument for not writing a will usually goes something like this: “I don’t need one; I’m not planning on dying anytime soon.” Only 44 percent of Americans have one, according to a Gallup poll. Without a will, a judge may make decisions for you. It’s time to change that.

A will is a legal way to firm up how you want things to be handled in the event of your death. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be done carefully. Here’s how to write a will.

  1. DECIDE WHAT TO INCLUDE AND WHO SHOULD GET WHAT

    Your will should lay out how you want your assets distributed after you die. Make a detailed list of your assets, including bank accounts, investments, retirement funds, annuities, property (real estate and cars, for example), life insurance policies, and any other items that have monetary or sentimental value. Then you need to decide who will get what and how they will get it. You might let them have whatever you leave directly or add some stipulations — for instance, you may put money that you leave in a trust and set rules for how someone could access the money. Make sure any beneficiary designations you’ve already completed for certain accounts — most notably, any life insurance policies and retirement plan accounts you have — are aligned with the wishes outlined in your will.

  2. PICK SOMEONE TO CARRY OUT YOUR WISHES

    You will need to name an executor, who will be the person who will do whatever is written down, known as settling your estate. Because that person will oversee the distribution of your assets, make sure you name someone you trust. It’s also a good idea to name a backup executor in case that person isn’t able to serve on your behalf down the road.

  3. FIGURE OUT WHO WILL TAKE CARE OF YOUR CHILDREN

    If you have minor or dependent children, be sure to name a guardian who will take charge of their care, assuming their other parent isn’t able to. Without a named guardian, a court will decide who should get them.

  4. CONSIDER SOME MORE DOCUMENTS

    This might be a good time to tackle other essential estate planning documents. Financial and health-care powers of attorney allow you to name people to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf if you can’t do it yourself. You can also specify your wishes about certain decisions. You may also want to write a living will, which provides your doctor with direction about your medical wishes.

    A will is a legal document, which means it’s important that you get it right. There are online services that can allow you to put together a simple will for no or low cost. But this is an area where it might make sense to consult with a qualified attorney. The National Association of Estate Planners and Councils offers a directory to help you find an attorney in your area.

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