How to Create an Online Will

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If your finances are relatively simple, you may not need to spend hundreds of dollars to hire an attorney to write a will for you. You can take advantage of readily available and inexpensive resources to produce your own will and other helpful documents to address medical and end-of-life issues. Consider this step-by-step plan to make it happen.

Do You Need a Will?

If you want to avoid a lot of issues that can arise for your heirs after pass on, you need a will. It’s the only way to have any assurances that your wishes will be carried out. It will also smooth the way for your heirs to transfer property and ensure that your assets get to the right people with a minimum of probate court interference.

Every state has what are called intestacy statutes that govern distribution of property when someone dies without a will. You can access your state’s intestacy statutes here. If you’re happy for your property to be distributed according to the succession laid down by your state’s lawmakers, then you probably don’t need a will.

 Read more about why you might want a will at Why You Need a Will.

Should You Hire a Lawyer to Write One for You?

It’s not necessary to hire a lawyer if your needs are simple, you just want to make sure your property gets transferred in an orderly manner, and your children are provided for. But other issues may require careful consideration and specialty knowledge to help you accomplish what you desire. An error in the will can cause untold complications. If you have any of the following issues, you should consult a lawyer (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Children from a previous marriage
  • You want to establish a trust
  • Tax issues
  • You own a business
  • You own real estate in multiple states
  • You have an incapacitated or disabled loved one that has special needs
  • You want to bequeath some or all of your estate to charity
  • You have substantial invested assets and have very specific concerns as to how your savings will be handled when you die

Take Stock of Your Assets

All of your property, real and personal, will end up somewhere after you pass on. Make an inventory of your assets. Don't overlook "hidden" assets, like money someone owes to you, or even your airline rewards programs. Likewise, don't assume that real estate and vehicles will take care of themselves. They don't. 

Some assets won't need to go through probate. If you’ve named a beneficiary already for an insurance policy or a 401k for instance, that money will go directly to the beneficiary without having to make a stop in the probate court. Likewise, most assets that you own with someone else, including as joint tenants, tenancy by the entirety, and community property with rights of survivorship, pass to the co-owner without need for probate. For other assets, designate who you’d like to receive each item.

Choose an Executor

Is there someone you trust to carry out your wishes after you’re death? You’ll need an executor, someone whose job is to see that the terms of the will are followed. Be sure you talk with your intended executor to ensure the person is willing and up to the task. You might also want to name a backup in case your first choice predeceases you or becomes incapacitated. You should also decide if you want that person compensated for his or her time out of the proceeds out of your estate. 

Choose a Guardian for Your Children

If you have minor children, you’ll want to name someone who will act as their guardian. This is a huge job, as they are in effect stepping into your role as parent. They are agreeing to not only become responsible for making decisions that affect each child, but to become financially responsible for the children as well. If you have the resources to provide financially for your children after your death, you might want to consider consulting an estate planning expert or hiring a lawyer to ensure that you have put in place the resources necessary to care for your children until they can take care of themselves.

Use Web-Based Will Planning Software

Online will planning software has greatly simplified the will production process, But, not all online resources are created equal. Some have been around for a long time and have stood the test of time. Others, not so much. As long as you realize that all will-making software will be limited in flexibility and not appropriate for all situations, you might want to check out these, which receive consistently high reviews:

For more on the limitations of online will making, read the Consumer Reports article Legal DIY Websites are No Match for a Pro.

What to Do After You've Written Your Will

Lots of people put their wills and other important documents in a safe deposit box at the bank. This is not a good idea. Boxes are often sealed upon the death of the box holder and won't be opened without a court order, and that can take considerable time.

The important thing is that your will be kept in a safe, relatively easily accessible place. Consider leaving copies with your executor and the person you want to be guardian of your children. For more on this, visit Where Should I Leave My Estate Planning Documents?

Consider Advance Directives

While you’re at it, consider adding advance directives, which are documents that can help you and your loved ones make and carry out decisions regarding your medical and other needs if you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions on your own behalf. You don’t need an attorney to prepare these documents, and they are readily available. You can access the documents online through many sources, including this AARP link.