“It’s too morbid to think about.”
“Only old people needs wills.”
“You need to hire a lawyer to make a will, and I can’t afford that.”
If you’re like many Americans, you’ve probably had similar thoughts about wills. And they’re all wrong.
You can write your own will — and no matter who you are, you should have one.
Why you need a will
Even if you don’t have much to leave anyone, a will is a good idea.
After all, you probably have some things you care about. And whether it’s your car or your dog, not having a will means letting the state decide where those things go if you die.
If you die without a will, the state will give your possessions to your closest blood relative. Each state has different rules about who qualifies. They’re called intestate statutes, and they’re pretty complicated.
In New York, for example, everything goes to your spouse and children, then your parents, then your siblings.
“It’s a difficult thing to think about,” said Nicholas J. Hite, a lawyer in New Orleans. “But taking that time to contemplate this issue will help you in listing the specific things you want to have happen without leaving your loved ones to second-guess … what you wanted for them.”
How to write your own will
Can you write your own will? Yes. But here’s a warning: If it doesn’t hold up in court, it could cost your heirs time, legal fees, and headaches.
So, if your estate is large or complicated, you should hire a lawyer instead of attempting to proceed yourself. The average cost of a will completed by a lawyer is $375, according to LegalZoom.
On the other hand, if everything is straightforward, you can do it yourself. Hite said it’s important to be “consistent, specific, and simple.”
“The idea is for the will to be a little instruction guide for your loved ones,” he explained. “Ikea can get away with vague or confusing instructions, but we can’t.”
Here are six steps for writing your own will.
1. Read your state’s regulations
Each state has its own regulations regarding wills, and it’s imperative you follow them.
For example, states differ on the legality of mediums for the will.
“While many states let folks rely on handwritten wills, not all states do,” said Hite. “Additionally, most states will recognize either the typed parts or the handwritten parts — not both.”
2. Include this vital info
In the introduction, you should include your full legal name (and any aliases), address, and birthdate as well as the following phrase: “I, [your name], being of sound mind and body, do hereby declare that this document is my last will and testament.”
“As cliche as it sounds in TV and movies, that whole … phrase is a really good idea,” said Hite.
3. Appoint an executor
Since you won’t be around when your will’s instructions are carried out, you need to appoint an executor to make sure your possessions are distributed correctly.
Most people choose a spouse or child to carry out this job. That being said, some people think it’s wiser to appoint someone who isn’t a beneficiary to avoid conflicts of interest.
If you’d rather go that route, you can appoint a trusted friend or a bank or lawyer (though the last two will typically take 1 to 5 percent of the estate’s value for this service).
“One of the most important things your will can do is empower your executor to pay your bills and deal with debt collectors,” explained the American Association of Retired Persons. “Make sure the wording of your will allows for this and also gives your executor leeway to take care of any related issues that aren’t specifically outlined in your will.”
Hite said a phrase like this one would probably suffice: “I hereby nominate [full name] as executor of my estate who thereby has the power to deal with my property and business in whatever manner they deem necessary as I myself might have.”
It’s also a good idea to appoint a second executor in case the first one is unable to perform their duties.
4. Choose guardians
If you don’t have kids or pets, you can skip this part.
For the rest of you, this is the most important section of the will, as it outlines who will take care of your babies if you die.
When you’ve decided who you want to appoint as guardian(s), get their permission before adding them. Legally, it isn’t necessary, but it’s wise — because if they refuse, the court will appoint someone else.
“This is a huge responsibility and not something to be taken lightly or given by surprise,” said Hite. “Also, name a backup guardian. And a backup for your backup. And a backup for your backup’s backup. Our littlest loved ones are too important to leave without a secure safety net.”
5. Name your beneficiaries
This is the most familiar section of the will for most of us. It lists who gets what.
You can allocate your possessions individually, or if you have investments, you can allocate percentages. Be sure to write out your beneficiaries’ full names (instead of saying “my son” or “my girlfriend”) and include their addresses.
“As much as possible, keep it simple,” said Hite. “Wills can be chock-full of legalese and some very frilly, complicated language, but ultimately they serve as a guide for people trying to do what you want, so leave them a simple set of directions.”
Note that you can omit things like:
- Your 401(k) account and life insurance policy: For these accounts, you already should’ve designated a beneficiary. (If you haven’t, get on it!)
- Certain bank accounts: If you’ve filled out a “payable upon death” form at your bank, the contents of the account will automatically go to that person.
- Anything that’s jointly owned, such as a house: It automatically will go to the co-owner.
Another thing to keep in mind: inheritance taxes. If one of your heirs lives in a state with an inheritance tax and another doesn’t, you might want to increase the amount of their inheritance to account for the difference. But be sure to also account for the higher amount they’ll be taxed.
6. Sign and store it
Here’s where you should definitely double-check your state’s regulations, as they might require notarized signatures or a certain number of witnesses. Hite recommended having at least two other people sign the will.
“These folks should be people who know you but who won’t benefit from your will,” he said. “I’ve had parents with kids on the same soccer team have a little pizza party together and witness each other’s wills. This doesn’t have to be a painful, secretive process, and everyone should be doing it, so why not make it simple or even a little fun?”
Once that part is finished, ensure your will stays secure. Keep the original in a safe-deposit box or fireproof safe and make a few copies to give to trusted relatives or friends.
Alternatives to DIY wills
If this process sounds complicated — and you’re afraid of messing things up — here are some digital tools that help you write a will on a budget:
- LegalZoom: Using this tool, you can write a will that’s personalized for your state for $69. If you pay an extra $10, you’ll also receive a 30-day trial of Legal Advantage Plus, through which you can have an attorney review your document at no additional charge.
- WillMaker Plus: For $69.99, Nolo’s software program allows you to create a will and a document granting power of attorney (to give someone control of your finances) and a health care directive (to specify what kind of medical care you want).
Another money-saving solution is to write your will yourself and then hire a lawyer to review the completed document. It can cost as little as $100, according to LegalZoom. If you can’t afford that amount, check for legal aid services in your area; you might be able to get your document reviewed for free.
And that’s it. You did it — you have a will.
Call me morbid, but death is inevitable. And creating a will can help take care of your loved ones even after you’re gone.
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