How To Write Your Own Will

A step-by-step guide to creating a will without a lawyer

Person writing in a binder
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Setting up a will is a smart way to ensure that your needs and wishes are met both at the end of your life and if you ever become incapacitated. Most people don't need a complicated will, yet it's an incredibly valuable document for anyone. Estate planning with a lawyer can be expensive, which is why many people choose to write a will on their own. Find out both the benefits and drawbacks of a DIY approach to make the best choice for your own estate plan.

Key Takeaways

  • It is legal to write a will without a lawyer.
  • The most important parts of a will are the naming of an executor, guardian(s) for minors, and beneficiaries for your assets.
  • Be sure to follow your state laws to validate the will.

Can You Write a Will Without a Lawyer?

You can write a will without a lawyer, although you'll need to follow your state guidelines to ensure it legally goes into effect. For instance, some states require that a will be signed in front of witnesses and/or notarized. There are both pros and cons to going the DIY route rather than an estate attorney.

Caroline Tanis, a financial advisor with the Tanis Financial Group in Hoboken, New Jersey, points out two of the biggest deciding factors for individuals considering how to approach making a will. "A major pro is that an attorney will bring up things you should put in your will that you may never have thought of," Tanis told The Balance by email. The biggest drawback? "The cost—especially if you have to update your will frequently. The cost of using an attorney during the process can add up."

As an in-between, you could opt for a template or online service that guides you through the will-creation process.

A “holographic will” is the term used for a handwritten will.

Steps To Writing Your Own Will

  1. Choose Your Format

    Designate how you want your assets to be divided after your death. List out all your assets, including financial accounts, real estate, and personal property. You then can name beneficiaries for each asset.

    "Put any gift requests in your will and any notes you have about them," Tanis said. "For example—you want your daughter to inherit the jewelry from your wedding and then have it passed on to her daughter."

    Your will is not the place for your burial instructions. "Wills are typically not read until after a funeral, so if you have any related wishes, nobody will know about them until it’s too late," said Tanis.

  2. Choose an Executor

    One of the most important decisions you'll make when creating a will is choosing an executor. This individual is responsible for navigating the probate process, managing your assets after death, filing final taxes, paying off remaining debts, and distributing remaining funds to your beneficiaries. Consequently, take time to think about someone you trust with these duties. You can also let your executor know of your decision rather than waiting for them to find out at the reading of the will.

  3. Detail Beneficiaries and Instructions for Your Assets

    Designate how you want your assets to be divided after your death. List out all your assets, including financial accounts, real estate, and personal property. You then can name beneficiaries for each asset.

    "Put any gift requests in your will and any notes you have about them," Tanis said. "For example—you want your daughter to inherit the jewelry from your wedding and then have it passed on to her daughter."

    Your will is not the place for your burial instructions. "Wills are typically not read until after a funeral, so if you have any related wishes, nobody will know about them until it’s too late," said Tanis.

  4. Select a Guardian for Minor Children

    If you're the parent or guardian of any minor children, name a legal guardian to be responsible for their care in case you pass away before they turn 18. Without a guardian named in your will, the court is responsible for choosing someone for you.

  5. Add Power of Attorney and Medical Directive Documents

    A will should include more than just instructions for divvying up your assets. "I always recommend that my clients also work on their medical directives and power of attorney documents at the same time," Tanis said.

    That's because death isn't the only time you may need someone to act on your behalf. Giving someone power of attorney or outlining medical directives helps ensure your wishes are made in the event you're incapacitated and can't make decisions on your own.

  6. Execute Your State's Signing Requirements

    Once you have all of the contents of your will in place, it's time to make it official. Each state has its own requirements on what validates a will. You may need to sign the will in front of one or two witnesses. Some states require that the will be notarized as well.

    Doing anything to a will after it’s created—removing staples, for instance—can render it invalid.

  7. Safely Store Your Will

    The final step of writing your own will is to store it in a safe place and tell your executor where it's located. Some ideas include a fireproof safe, a safety deposit box, or with an estate attorney if you decide to use their services. You might choose to give your executor a copy and they can also distribute copies to your beneficiaries upon your death.

Keep Your Will Up-to-Date

Creating the first version of your will is a great step in taking care of your loved ones in the event of your death, but it's also important to review the document on a regular basis and make any necessary changes. "People should review their wills annually to make sure there’s no minor edits or changes that need to be made," Tanis said. "Outside of that, it should be updated when any major life events occur, like marriage, divorce, death, birth of a child, a child turning 18, or a move to a different state." If you do move, it's important to make sure your will is valid in the new state.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much does it cost to write my own will?

You can write your own will from scratch for free. But if you want a guided template or will make one using software, expect to spend anywhere from $69 to upward of $300, especially if you wish to complete a standard estate plan. Also, the more complex your will, the more it will likely cost.

When should I write a will?

If you have any assets, you should write a will as part of your estate planning. Whether you have a car, a savings account, or anything else, designating beneficiaries in a will lets you, rather than your state, choose what happens to those assets.

What happens if I don’t write a will?

Each state has its own laws on how assets are distributed when there's no will. It may be the closest blood relative if there's no spouse, or assets may be divided among the surviving spouse and children.

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