A will, also called a last will and testament, is a legal document and the foundation to any estate plan. Writing a will can seem daunting, but it’s a fairly straightforward process and there are numerous ways to do it — you can even make an online will by yourself without a lawyer. To get started on preparing your will, you just need to know who you want to receive your assets and property when you die.
How to write a will in 9 steps
Here are nine steps you can take to start writing a will:
Decide how you want to make your will
Choose what to include in your will
Determine whether or not you want to open a trust
Name a guardian for a minor child
Pick an executor
Leave out personal wishes
Find witnesses & sign the will
Attach a self-proving affidavit & notarize
1. Decide how you want to make your will
You have a few main options in terms of ways to make a will: hire an attorney, write your own will, or use a will-making service.
The traditional way to write a will is to hire an attorney. This is the most costly option, but working with an estate planning attorney may be necessary in certain situations, like if you have complex beneficiaries or want to avoid estate taxes.
A cost effective option for most people is to make a will online. Online wills can be suitable for most people with straightforward estates.
You can also write a will from scratch, but this may be more prone to issues unless you have legal experience. In order to make a valid will, it has to comply with requirements set out by your state's law and if it doesn't, your family members and loved ones may be stuck arguing in court after you die. (For example, a handwritten will may not be legally recognized except under certain conditions.)
2. Choose what assets to include in your will
Your estate is the collection of all your assets, including real estate and personal property and belongings. When you write your will, you will need to decide which assets to include in it. There are also a few ways you can distribute your assets, like by percentage, through specific bequests, or a residuary clause.
Some questions to consider when choosing about your assets:
Do you want to divide your estate among multiple people (by percentage of estate) or do you want to give the entire estate to someone?
Are there any specific bequests you want to make? You can name a certain person to receive a certain asset if you want.
Certain assets should never be included in your will, like retirement accounts, a joint bank account, or a life insurance policy, just to name a few.
3. Designate beneficiaries
The people or organizations who receive an inheritance are your beneficiaries, and you need to include their full names when you write a will. You should also name a backup or secondary beneficiary in your will in case the primary beneficiary is deceased or unable to accept the inheritance. This can cause less confusion later on.
4. Opt whether or not to open a trust
When you write your will, you can also include instructions to have a trust created upon your death. A trust created through your will is called a testamentary trust. Creating a trust can add more time and cost to your estate planning, but a trust can provide more control over how your assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Testamentary trusts don’t avoid probate, but they may still help distribute valuable assets like a home.
5. Name a guardian for a minor child
If you and your spouse are both dead, you’ll need someone to take care of any minor children. In your will, you can name a specific person to act as their legal guardian until they reach the age of the majority in your state.
6. Pick an executor
Your executor is in charge of handling your estate once you’ve passed away. That includes bringing your will to probate court, settling any outstanding debts, and ultimately distributing assets to the proper beneficiaries in your will. If you don’t name an executor when you create your will, the court will have to appoint a personal representative to perform these duties.
7. Leave out personal wishes
If you have final wishes and sentiments for your loved ones that aren’t related to your assets, it’s best to include them in a separate letter, called a letter of instruction. For example, you can leave your preferences for funeral and burial arrangements. Since these personal wishes typically need to be known soon after someone dies, it’s important that someone can easily find this letter. If they can’t, they won’t be able to follow your wishes. You may also want to notify someone that you have created this letter.
8. Find witnesses & sign the will
You need two people, usually adults, to watch you sign your will. They’ll also sign it as confirmation that you actually wrote the will and had the mental competence (testamentary capacity) to do so. Every state has different witnessing requirements, but it’s usually best practice to have two witnesses and specifically disinterested witnesses — people who don’t stand to benefit from the terms of your will.
9. Attach a self-proving affidavit & notarize
A will doesn’t need to be notarized in order to make it a valid. However, when you prepare your will you should include a self-proving affidavit — a legal document that makes it unnecessary for your witnesses to appear in court after you’re dead to prove the will’s validity. If allowed in your state, an affidavit can help save time during the probate process so your beneficiaries can get their inheritances sooner.
If you use an online service to make a will, it may include the appropriate affidavit for your state. The affidavit must be notarized.
What to do after writing a will
After you make your will, here are four more estate planning moves to make.
Store the will
Your will is no good if it can’t be found. Make sure you keep both the digital and hard copies in a safe place and let someone, like your executor, know where it is. You can also leave your will with a lawyer. If allowed in your state, you can also file your will at the local court or will registry.
Update the will when necessary
You should review your will periodically in case circumstances change. If you experience a major life event, like having another child or getting divorced, or if one of your beneficiaries dies, you’ll need to update your will. You can update a will by adding a codicil, which must be witnessed and signed just like you did in the steps above. (However, you may be better off just writing a new will.)
Get other estate planning documents
Remember that a will is only one part of your estate plan. You might also want to consider a living will, which is an advance directive that outlines future health care decisions, and a power of attorney (POA), which can give someone legal authority to make decisions on your behalf.
Consider a living trust
A will must be proven in court after you die during probate, which can take some time — even if you write a solid will. If you want your beneficiaries to receive their inheritance more quickly, then you might want to open a living trust (intervivos trust). This is a separate entity that holds onto your property and distributes it to your chosen beneficiaries — independent of the probate process. A living trust can still be useful even if you’ve decided to create a testamentary trust upon your death.
What happen when you don't write a will
If you die without writing a will — or make an invalid will — the court will determine your legal heirs based on a series of legal statutes called intestacy laws. Your closest blood relatives usually have a greater claim to inherit your assets and your final beneficiaries may not be who you wanted — all the more reason to write a will that passes muster in court.