With a last will and testament, simply referred to as a will, you can leave instructions for what happens to your estate to provide for your loved ones and family members after you die. It’s relatively straightforward to make a will, but you’ll want to understand what’s legally necessary to create one and what happens without it. Whether you’re just getting started on your estate plan, or you have questions about the ins and outs of probate, our library of explainers has what you need.
What is a will?
A last will and testament is a legal document that lets you distribute your assets, money, and belongings to your beneficiaries when you die. The terms of a will only kick in after you pass away; they’re not enforceable during your lifetime. A will also allows you to name a guardian for your minor children, and appoint an executor, the person who will manage your estate and carry out the terms of the will.
What’s covered in a will?
You can use your will to give away virtually anything you own outright. This could include real estate, like your house, money, high-value assets like your cars or art collection, and even items of little monetary value, like your plants.
Making a will involves naming beneficiaries to receive your assets, and it should be constructed according to certain rules. The specific requirements to make a will legally valid are set by state law, so they vary depending on where you live. At a high level, a will includes the signature of the testator, and the signature of two witnesses who can testify that the testator signed the document and was competent to do so.
Are wills only for rich people?
Everyone can benefit from having will. People who have children, are married, or divorced especially need a will to make sure their dependents and family members are covered, but even single people can greatly benefit from getting a will. If you have just one item you want to pass on to a specific person, then a will is necessary to make sure that happens.
When there is no will
If you don't have a will, then the probate court will decide what to do with your assets after you're gone based on state intestacy laws. Your surviving spouse and next-of-kin typically inherit something, but there won’t be a way to enforce what assets they specifically receive. (If you want someone other than a spouse to inherit something then you definitely need a will to say so.)
A will doesn’t just codify who gets your stuff. You can use it to specify which items your beneficiaries can receive or how much. Without a will, your heirs may not receive the assets exactly as you had intended.
Types of wills
There are many different types of wills, and one of them may be right for you.
How to write a will
Here are some common ways to of making a will:
Do it yourself
You can write a will on your own from scratch, but note that handwritten wills may not be valid in every state. Unless you have legal experience, it’s possible you may miss something or leave errors, which can make your will more vulnerable to a court challenge or contest.
You can also fill out a blank will form or template, but DIY wills may leave gaps in your estate plan. A last will and testament template that you fill in on your own may not be tailored to your personal circumstances.
Make an online will
Using a digital service or app is a good option for many people because you can make a personalized and state-specific will without necessarily having to research your state’s laws. Just make sure any service you use has been vetted by attorneys so that you know it will create valid wills.
Work with an estate attorney
The traditional way to create a will is by working with an estate planning attorney who specializes in wills and trusts. Attorneys who are licensed to work in your state should know the local laws, and they can help you create a strong will that’s tailored to your needs.
While many people can create an effective will without an attorney, you may benefit from an attorney’s help if you have a large estate, wealthy estate, many beneficiaries, a blended family, or if you want to disinherit a close family member. An attorney can also help you plan for any estate tax or inheritance tax.
Can you just write a will and get it notarized?
Notarization in and of itself won’t qualify your will as a valid legal document, but if you want to make your will self-proved, then you’ll need to pay a visit to a notary public with your witnesses. With a self-proved will, your witnesses don’t need to appear in court after you’ve died to testify about your will.
How much does a will cost?
Price of online wills: $0 to $300
Price of attorney-drafted wills: $200 to $1,000 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.
After creating your will
Once you’ve created your last will and testament, you should revisit it regularly, especially after you reach new milestones, like getting divorced, remarried or having another child.
Can I update my will?
You may want to update your will if you've made an error, left something out, or experienced a major life event. Once your will is signed, you can make changes to your will — like by updating the terms with a codicil — but you’ll generally have to go through the same formal signing process of having the new document witnessed. That’s why if you have many updates it’s common to simply write a new will that replaces the old one.
Where to store your will
Your will won't’ be very useful if no one can find it. It’s a good idea to leave a copy with someone you trust like your executor. You should think twice before putting your will in a safe deposit box, where it may be difficult for someone to find once you’ve passed away.
Other will and estate planning questions
Below are some other common questions you might have on wills and estate planning.
How to know if you’re in a will
After the testator dies, their will eventually becomes part of the public record once probate has concluded. Contrary to pop culture, will readings don’t actually happen. If you’re mentioned in a will as named beneficiary, then the executor will notify you.
Who should be my beneficiaries?
The beneficiaries of your will can be your family, friends, relatives, and even charities or businesses. A will can include contingent beneficiaries, or back-up beneficiaries in case the primary ones have predeceased you.
Your beneficiary can also be your executor, the person tasked with carrying out the terms and administering your estate.
What is probate of a will?
Probate is the process of administering your estate after you die. If you die without a will, then the local court will determine your heirs during this time. When you have a will, its terms guide what happens next. The authenticity of your will may also need to be proven, and during this time your will may also be contested or challenged by your beneficiaries and potential heirs. Writing an airtight will can help probate run smoothly, avoiding potential court interaction.
How is a will different from a trust?
Wills and trusts are two important, but different, parts of an estate plan and they work hand in hand. 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. A trust is a separate entity and it allows for greater control. You can also have your will create a trust upon your death — a testamentary trust.
Do I need a will if I have life insurance?
The proceeds of a life insurance policy can pass to a beneficiary outside of a will. In fact, you shouldn't include life insurance in the terms of your will, but it can work alongside of it as part of your estate plan.