To plan for what happens to your assets and belongings after you pass away, you should write a last will and testament. When properly written, a will is a valid legal document that holds up in court, and you don’t need a lawyer to create one. You can make a will on your own by following the will requirements set by the laws in your state. If you have a fairly simple estate, writing a will on your own can help you save money — a lawyer may charge a few hundred dollars or more for a will.
But people who have more complex estates may benefit from using the services of an attorney. Two common ways of writing a will without a lawyer include following a will template or using an online will writing service.
Keep in mind that a will is just one part of an estate plan. You may also want to think about other useful estate planning documents, like an advance directive or power of attorney, to help plan for the future as well.
Two ways to make your own will without a lawyer
If you have a straightforward financial situation — you only have simple assets to give away, like your house and possessions, or are leaving everything to your spouse — then you might benefit from making a simple will on your own and saving on legal fees.
You can write your will completely on your own — whether typed or by hand, which might be a holographic will if your state allows — but it should contain the necessary legal language. You can find the details in your state’s legal statutes, but it may be difficult or arduous to sift through on your own.
Instead you can make a will by following a template you find online. You’ll just fill in the blanks with your personal information, your beneficiaries and assets. Another way to make a will without a lawyer is by using an online will service that guides you through the process. Sort of like tax return software, a will-writing service asks you questions — about your spouse and family, your beneficiaries, and your assets — and then it creates a will based on your answers. A will made this way could be more tailored to your needs compared to a template. You should always check to see that the template or will-writing service is meant for your state.
Who needs a lawyer to write a will?
You can make a valid will without the help of a lawyer, but there are some circumstances when you may benefit from having a legal expert write your will. For example, if you are providing for a child or beneficiary with special needs, have a blended family, or want to protect your assets from a nursing home, then you may benefit from working with an attorney.
You should also consider a lawyer if your estate contains many high value assets and multiple pieces of real estate or if you’re worried about any tax consequences, like estate tax or inheritance tax. An estate planning attorney can also help you write your will as part of a more comprehensive estate plan, including any special types of trusts that ensure your loved ones are properly cared for.
What should you include in your will?
If your will isn’t properly constructed, it may be found invalid during probate after you’ve passed away. The court will declare you to have died intestate, or as if you never had a will at all. When you make a will on your own make sure to include the following things:
A declaration of who you are, your intent to make a will, and your signature
The names of your spouse and immediate family members
Property and assets in your estate
Beneficiaries to receive them
An executor to manage the estate after you’re gone
A guardian for minor children
As long as you follow these rules, your will can pass muster in court. A good template or will-writing service would take these requirements into account.
What should you never put in your will?
Do not use your will to pass on the proceeds of a life insurance policy (which comes with its own beneficiary designation), or bank accounts and retirement accounts, which can be made payable on death. You should also refrain from listing jointly-owned assets or assets placed in a trust in the terms of your will.
Including these assets won’t necessarily invalidate your will, but it could make things more complicated after you die and delay the time it takes your heirs to receive anything.
If you want more control over how your assets are passed one, consider a trust. A trust is another estate planning option that can help you distribute assets to your beneficiaries. It takes more work than creating a will and it will likely cost more, but your beneficiaries can receive trust assets outside of the probate court. (You can create both a will and trust with Policygenius.)
Executing your will without a lawyer
Once you’ve written your will, you need to take a few more steps to make it legal so it holds up during probate. When you get a will through a lawyer, these final steps are typically taken care of by the attorney right in their office. But when you write a will on your own, this process requires a little more work.
In almost every state, your will needs to be signed by two witnesses. It is their job to make sure that you’re of sound mind when you create the will. You’ll have to find your own witnesses, and every state sets its own restrictions on who that can be.
Wills themselves don’t require notarization, but you might want to take extra steps to make your will self-proven with an affidavit, which needs to be notarized. Including a self-proving affidavit with your will makes it so that your witnesses don’t have to appear in court to confirm the details of the will after you’ve passed away. If you use an online service to write a will, an affidavit might be included with the will.