How Not to Structure Your Will

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

Your will is first and foremost a legal document-a set of instructions regarding the disposition of your assets-but keep in mind that it's also a document with a great deal of emotional baggage for your relatives, and others close to you. People have expectations (almost always unstated) regarding what should or might be left to them, and make no mistake: Correct or not, people will draw strong conclusions regarding how you "really" felt about them based on how they're treated in your will.

We obviously can't tell you how to divide up your assets-that's a purely personal decision-but we do have some advice regarding how not to structure this document. Two errors are particularly problematic.

  • Including unrealistic restrictions

    We knew a woman who put a caveat in her will stating that if either of her sons placed her in a nursing home, that son would be completely disinherited. We understand the woman's fears, of course, but think about the difficult situation she created. Sometimes people genuinely need skilled nursing care, and although no one welcomes this possibility, in certain situations it's simply the best option. Should that situation ever arise this woman's sons would be forced to choose between getting their mother the most appropriate care and retaining their share on the inheritance.
  • Spreading decision-making authority among multiple people

    Certain assets (like houses) can't be divided. In such situations it's sometimes tempting to leave the asset to a group of people (for example, one's siblings or one's children), and that's OK. But if you do take that route be sure to delegate decision-making authority to one person rather than the entire group. We know a couple who took the latter route, and now, after more than a decade the house sits empty, in disrepair, because the owners-three siblings-can't agree on whether they should sell it, rent it, or allow one of the siblings to occupy it. (Not only is the house decaying as the process drags on, but the siblings' relationships have been permanently damaged by years' worth of arguments and legal battles.)

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, which is available at, or may be purchased directly from HarperCollins Publishers.

Our latest book is entitled How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement, published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.