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Last Will and Testament

Learn everything you need to know about wills and how to make one online

Elissa

By

Elissa Suh

Elissa Suh

Personal Finance Editor

Elissa Suh is a senior editor of estate planning at Policygenius in New York City. She has researched and written extensively about wills, trusts, and personal finance since 2019, with an eye towards making difficult (and at times gloomy) topics easy to understand for readers. Her articles and data stories has been cited by the likes of MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

Published March 19, 2021|3 min read

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What is a will?

A last will and testament is a legal document that provides instructions on how to distribute your property and belongings to your beneficiaries when you die. Your beneficiaries can include family, friends, and even charities. Your will also lets you appoint a guardian to take care of your dependents. 

Wills are an important part of an estate plan that everyone should have. When planning for the future, you want to be secure in knowing that your assets will go to your loved ones when you pass away. If you die without a will, the court will determine your heirs.

What do people usually put in their will?

You can use your will to give away virtually anything you own outright. This could include a house, a car, money, and personal belongings — even something of little monetary value, like your plants. If you own items jointly, like as community property, you may be able to bequeath your portion.

→ Learn more about what to include in a will.

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Do I need a will?

If you don't have a will, then the probate court will decide what to do with your assets after you're gone. A will not only codifies who gets your stuff, but how much, and which items each of your heirs can receive. Without a will, beneficiaries may receive assets in ways you never intended.

You need a will to: 

  1. Give away assets: A will is the best way to ensure that your property is divided up according to your wishes. This is especially important for assets of sentimental value, which, without a will, could get lumped in with the larger estate instead of going to your intended recipient.

  2. Choose a guardian for your minor children: In the event that both parents die without naming anyone in their will, the state must select a guardian, which may not be the best person to care for your dependents.

  3. Name an executor to handle your estate: Once you pass away, you’ll need someone to settle your affairs. An executor makes sure your heirs receive their inheritance, pays your remaining debts, and files your last tax return. 

Individuals vs couples 

If you’re married, each spouse will need a will. Your surviving spouse will likely get some or all of your assets when you die without a will, but if you want someone other than a spouse to inherit something then you need a will to say so.

If you’re not married, you can still benefit from getting a will. For example, a will can make sure your sister gets that rare artwork of yours that she always admired.

Should I add a trust?

Trusts can add a lot of value to your estate plan. Trusts hold onto your assets and pass them to future beneficiaries according to your instructions. While a will allows for one time distributions, pairing it with a trust allows you to have your assets managed and distributed over time or once your children reach a responsible age that you determine. If that’s all you want to use it for, a trust is easy to set up and administer.

A trust can also potentially help you avoid court fees in administering your estate, called probate fees. This requires a bit more work to set up since you have to transfer some assets to the trust.

You might also want to get a trust if you have a larger estate or want to keep the details of your estate private. The contents of a will eventually enter the public record. 

→ Learn more about trusts vs wills and how they work together. 

How to create a will

  • Use a will-making service: Making a will online with a digital service is a good, cost-effective option for many people because you can make a personalized and state-specific will, without necessarily having to research your state’s laws.

  • Work with an estate attorney: The traditional way of creating a will is also the most expensive option, but some people may benefit if they have a large or complex estate.

  • Write your own will: You can type or even handwrite a will on your own as long as you follow all of your state’s laws. However, these wills offer the least protection for your heirs and may be more vulnerable to a court challenge.

Create a will on Policygenius, starting at just $120

How much does it cost to get a will?

Online services generally charge significantly less than an attorney to create a will. 

  • Price of online wills: $0 to $300

  • Price of attorney-drafted wills: $200 to $1,000 or more

  • Price of a will from Policygenius: $150

While you can get free wills — such as forms or templates that you fill out on your own — these could leave gaps in your estate plan. Online will-writing services can offer a more complete plan, and they should be specific to your state.

Furthermore, if you want a trust, you can expect an attorney-drafted trust to cost $3,000 or more.

Creating a will with a lawyer will almost always cost more, especially in bigger cities. However, it may be worthwhile if you have more complex needs, like if you need legal advice on minimizing taxes, creating a trust, or writing someone out of your will. 

→ Learn more about the cost of a will.

How to write a will with Policygenius

These are the basic steps you’ll need to take when writing a will, regardless of the type of will:

  1. Log into our online will-making service
. If this is your first time, you’ll need to start an account.

  2. Designate beneficiaries
. Most people choose their spouse, kids, and other loved ones, but beneficiaries can be almost anyone you want.

  3. Choose who should get your assets generally and what individual assets you want to go to a specific person
. This could include everything from your house to small or priceless items.

  4. Name a guardian for a minor child
 and dependents. This is to make sure that someone you trust can continue caring for your dependents.

  5. Pick an executor. You’ll need someone to wrap up your affairs and represent your estate, so it should be someone responsible and who knows your wishes best.

  6. Determine whether or not you want to set up a trust. A trust allows you more control over your estate versus a one-time distribution you’d get with a will alone and may save you on probate fees.

  7. Designate a trustee. If you decide to open a trust, you’ll need someone, the trustee, to administer the trust.

→ Read this step-by-step guide on how to write a will.

Why trust Policygenius?

  • Attorney-approved tools: We worked with attorneys licensed in your state to develop the tools, templates, and process of getting an affordable will and trust.

  • Made for your state: Wills and trusts made with Policygenius meet state-specific legal requirements.

  • Made for your needs: You can customize your will to meet your family’s unique needs. And you can establish an optional trust to give you more control over how your assets are distributed.

  • Made for your budget: Estate planning documents start at just $150 — with no billable hours or hidden fees.

  • Made for your schedule: We break up the process into achievable pieces and outline your options in plain English at every step.

FAQs about wills

Learning about wills and estate planning can be overwhelming, but Policygenius is here to help.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes a will legally binding?

The specific requirements to make a will legally valid are set by state law, so they can vary depending on where you live. At a high level, a will needs to be signed by the testator in the presence of witnesses who can testify that the testator signed the document and was competent to do so. It is generally recommended, and required in some states, that the will be signed in front of a notary so that witnesses do not need to be located many years later to attest that the will is valid.

Can I update my will?

You can update your will, but once it is signed, any updates will generally require you go through the same formal signing process in front of witnesses and a notary. It’s therefore common if you have updates to simply do a new will that replaces the old one. You may want to update your will if you’ve made an error, left something out, or reached a new life milestone, like having another child. If you use Policygenius to make your will, you can update it for the first year at no additional charge.

How is a trust different from a will?

Wills and trusts are two important, but different, pieces of an estate plan and they work hand in hand. A will is instructions to a special court, called a probate court, on how you want your affairs handled. It kicks in only once you die. It’s used to appoint someone to manage your affairs, direct who gets your assets, and name guardians for your children.

A trust is used specifically to handle the management and distribution of your assets. It allows for greater control than a will alone because you can use it to instruct a trustee whom you designate to hold and manage assets and distribute them over time (e.g., when your children are old enough to manage them responsibly) rather than all at once upon your death. It can also be used to avoid probate costs.

Are wills and trusts only for rich people?

No. Everyone should have a will. And trusts are a common part of estate plans for everyday Americans who want more control over what their assets can be used for, when their assets will get distributed to their children, or to avoid probate costs.

Can I disinherit someone?

Your ability to disinherit someone depends on the nature of your relationship and where you live. In many states there are restrictions on disinheriting a spouse or children. If you want to disinherit someone, you should work closely with a qualified attorney, because wills that disinherit individuals are prone to challenge.

What should I do with my will after it’s legally binding?

After you’ve taken the necessary steps to ensure the validity of your will, keep the will in a safe place that your loved ones can access. You may also want to give a copy to a person you trust, such as a close family member.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process of proving a will and deciding how your belongings are distributed. If you die without a will, then the local court will decide what to do with your assets according to state law, and it may not be what you wanted.

What else goes into an estate plan?

In addition to a will and trust, there are some essential estate planning documents that most people would benefit from having. A power of attorney gives someone you choose the legal ability to make financial or medical decisions on your behalf if you're unable to do so. A living will specifies what medical care you want to receive if you become sick, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to communicate your own wishes.