A will is a set of instructions that explains how you want your property to be distributed after your death. The property that is transferred by a will is referred to as "probate property." Generally speaking, probate property is comprised of assets that are owned individually by you. For example, if you have a bank account in your name, it will be disposed of by your will. Alternatively, "non-probate" property includes assets that have either a designated beneficiary (e.g., life insurance, IRAs, or other pension plan assets) or that are held jointly with another person or persons (e.g., property held as a joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety).
Although a will is an important part of any estate plan, many people today rely on a trust as the primary vehicle for handling and distributing their wealth. In conjunction with a trust, people may rely on a will to distribute any property not already held in trust to the trust at the time of death. This type of will is commonly referred to as a "pour over will." A pour over will works by having the probate assets in a person's estate pour over from the will into a designated trust and distributed according to the terms of that trust. A pour over will is no different from the general will described above, except that there are usually no lengthy provisions in a pour over will articulating how assets should be distributed because they are all appointed to a trust. Accordingly, a will is an essential instrument in every estate plan because it acts as a catch all or safety valve that handles property not already in trust or that does not have a designated beneficiary.
In considering your will, it is also important to nominate a guardian for any minor children and leave instructions on how personal items such as family jewelry, antiques and heirlooms should be distributed.