How to write a will

Your nine step guide to writing a will

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A will, also called a last will and testament, is a legal document containing instructions on who gets your property and assets when you die. It is the foundation to any estate plan.

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Over 20% of Americans don’t have a will because they don’t know where to get one, according to the 2020 Estate Planning Survey from Policygenius. Little do they know that they can actually make a will themselves. Writing a will can seem daunting, but it’s a fairly straightforward process and there are numerous ways to do it — including getting a will online without a lawyer.

Key Takeaways

  • You can write a will with a template or an online will writing service.

  • In order for a will to be valid it needs to follow your state’s requirements.

  • DIY wills cost less than hiring a lawyer to write a will.

  • After writing your will, there are a few more estate planning documents you should consider making.

How to write a will in 9 steps

Here are nine steps to writing a will:

  1. Decide how you want to make your will

  2. Choose what to include in your will

  3. Designate beneficiaries

  4. Determine whether or not you want to open a trust

  5. Name a guardian for a minor child

  6. Pick an executor

  7. Leave out personal wishes

  8. Find witnesses & sign the will

  9. Attach an 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, like if you have complex beneficiaries or want to avoid estate taxes. Learn more common signs you should hire an estate lawyer.

A cost effective option for most people is to either download a DIY will template and fill it out with your information, or use an online will maker, which is a program that guides you through the process. Online wills can be suitable for most people with straightforward estates. (You can make a state-specific will with step-by-step guidance from Policygenius.)

An even cheaper option can be to write a will from scratch, but this may be more prone to issues unless you have legal experience. If you want to try writing a will from scratch, make sure to include all the requirements for a valid will set out by your state.

→ Learn more about how much a will costs

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. See the fill list of what you should never put in your will and why.

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.

→ Learn how to choose a beneficiary

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.

→ Learn more about the benefits of a testamentary trust, which does not avoid probate

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.

→ Learn more about how to choose a guardian for your child

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.

→ Learn who can be an executor and what other responsibilities they have

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.

→ Learn how to write a letter of instruction, also called an ethical will

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.

→ Learn more about witnessing a will

9. Attach an affidavit & notarize

A will doesn’t need to be notarized in order to make it a valid. However, you may want to 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.

→ Still confused? Learn all about notarizing a will and how to find a notary public

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.

→ Learn more about storing your will

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.)

→ Learn more about adding a codicil to a 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.

→ Learn more about a living trust vs. will

What happens without a will

If you die without writing a 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.

→ Here is what happens if you die without a will