4 Types of Wills Explained: Which One Is Right for You?

By Anna Davies · February 20, 2024 · 6 minute read

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4 Types of Wills Explained: Which One Is Right for You?

Not all wills are alike; there are actually four main kinds and one of them is right for you. Sure, writing a will can be an easy task to put off until “someday.” But what if the worst were to happen before “someday?” That could mean a complicated and emotionally draining legal process for your loved ones. Creating a will not only can provide peace of mind for your loved ones after you die, but it can also provide peace of mind for you right now.

The simple definition of a will is a document that states your final wishes. This alone was sufficient a century ago, when many people had limited property to pass down. But in the modern era, when “property” encompasses everything from the contents of your long-forgotten storage unit to the crypto you decided to buy on a whim, a simple will may not encompass your complex life.

Not only that, but a will is a document that only takes effect after you die. But what if you were medically unable to make decisions? Modern end-of-life documents encompass your wishes if you were medically or otherwise unable to make decisions on your own. Among these documents is one that also has the world “will” in its name.

4 Kinds of Wills

As you begin estate planning, you’ll likely come across four common types of wills. These are:

•   A simple will

•   A joint will

•   A testamentary trust will

•   A living will

Let’s look at each type of will more closely.

What Is a Simple Will?

Like the name, a simple will may be the type of will that pops into your mind when you hear the word “will.” This will can:

•   State how you want your property bequeathed upon death

•   Provide guardianship specifications for minors

Upon death, a simple will is likely to go through a legal process known as probate to divide assets. Sometimes, in the case of high-net worth individuals, probate can be expensive. (For those with complex situations and a positive net worth, a trust can help handle those what-ifs. It can transfer assets out of your estate and into the trust, which can be advantageous in terms of taxes.) But in many situations, a simple will can provide peace of mind for people in good health. Later, these individuals may want to take on more complex estate planning, but a will provides a good foundation when it comes to making sure guardians are named and property is divided according to your wishes.

A simple will can be created through online templates, and the cost can be zero dollars to several hundred dollars. More expensive online options may come with support from an attorney who can help answer simple questions. Once created, a will then needs to be made legal according to state laws. This may include signing the will in front of witnesses. You may also want to have it notarized. Having a hard copy of the will, as well as people who know how to access it in case of your death, can ensure the will is found in a timely manner if you were to die.

💡 Quick Tip: We all know it’s good to have a will in place, but who has the time? These days, you can create a complete and customized estate plan online in as little as 15 minutes.

What Is a Joint Will?

A joint will functions in much the same way as a simple will, except it is a will created by two people, usually who are married to each other. It merges their wishes into a single legal document. In many cases, this kind of will dictates that property will be left entirely to the surviving partner. Here’s the catch, though: Upon death, property will be distributed in the manner dictated by the will — the surviving person does not have the ability or authority to make changes to what the will says once the initial spouse has died.

This can sound streamlined, especially if couples were planning to leave everything to each other anyway. But this type of will can cause headaches. For example, if the surviving spouse has more children or gets remarried, it can be almost impossible to provide for additional people not named in the initial, joint will.

There could be problems even if the surviving spouse does not remarry. For example, if the marital home is considered an asset to be given to the couple’s children upon the death of both of the will’s creators, it may be impossible for the surviving spouse to sell a home to downsize.

One alternative that may suit married couples is to create two individual wills. This may provide a greater degree of flexibility and better achieve the desired effect without ruling out all of life’s what-ifs.

What Is a Testamentary Trust Will?

A testamentary trust will is usually part of big-picture estate planning. It is a document that creates a trust that goes into effect when you die. This trust can outline how certain types of property will be divided. A testamentary trust can have certain stipulations (for example, someone only inherits X piece of property when they reach Y age). This can also be used for people with minors or dependents to help ensure that wishes are followed.

What’s more, a testamentary trust can also help provide for pets. Because a pet can’t own property, naming your “fur baby” within a will can set up a legal headache. But a testamentary trust can ensure that your pet will be provided for according to your wishes.

It’s worth noting that a testamentary trust will go through the probate process, and it may not have the same tax benefits for recipients as other types of trusts. Weighing the pros and cons of different trust options can be helpful before settling on the best one for your situation.

What Is a Living Will?

This is a hard topic to think about, but what if you were in an accident and were knocked unconscious? What if you were undergoing treatment for a serious medical condition and couldn’t fully grasp the options offered to you? There’s a way to put a trusted relative or friend in the decision-making role. A living will, which is also known as an advance directive, specifies your wishes if you were medically incapacitated or unable to make or communicate decisions about your medical care. It also stipulates who your healthcare proxy, also known as a medical power of attorney, would be to make medical decisions on your behalf.

If you are creating a living will, you may also want to create a power of attorney document as well. This designates a person, who may or may not be the same person as your healthcare proxy, who has the right to make financial decisions on your behalf. Having a living will can cover unexpected situations that may occur before death and can be an integral part of end of life planning.

💡 Quick Tip: It’s recommended that you update your will every 3-5 years, and after any major life event. With online estate planning, changes can be made in just a few minutes — no attorney required.

The Takeaway

While end of life planning can be a challenging or sad endeavor, it’s an important step in making sure your assets are directed where you want them to go and that other important wishes are executed as you want. There are four main types of wills to help you legally record your plans. You’ll have options; more than one may suit your needs. And you can decide to use online services or work in person with an attorney.

In either case, making a will can give you peace of mind right now — and help smooth things along for your loved ones in the future during a difficult time.

When you want to make things easier on your loved ones in the future, SoFi can help. We partnered with Trust & Will, the leading online estate planning platform, to give our members 15% off their trust, will, or guardianship. The forms are fast, secure, and easy to use.

Create a complete and customized estate plan in as little as 15 minutes.

Photo credit: iStock/LaylaBird

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