A will is a document that directs how a person’s “probate assets” are to be distributed at the time of death. The person who makes the will is referred to as the testator. Probate assets are assets that the person owns individually without a designated beneficiary or with the person’s estate as the designated beneficiary. Assets that are jointly owned, payable to a designated beneficiary other than the person’s estate, or owned by a trust are not probate assets. If there is no will, the distribution of probate assets will be determined by the laws of the state where the person domiciled at the time of death.

In addition to providing for the distribution of assets, a will nominates an executor to administer the estate. Once appointed by the probate court, the executor is responsible for gathering probate assets, paying debts, filing final income tax returns and distributing probate assets to the beneficiaries designated in the will. A will addresses the payment of any estate or generation-skipping transfer taxes that may be due at death. A will may also nominate a guardian for the person’s minor children and a custodian to hold any probate assets passing to minor beneficiaries. Wishes regarding organ donation and cremation or burial arrangements may also be set forth in a will.

Once a person dies, their will is filed with the probate court and it becomes a public document that is available to anyone who requests it.