Understanding how to write a will, also known as a last will and testament, is an important part of preparing for your future.
Having a will in place ensures your assets and possessions are distributed according to your wishes – reducing the risk of family quarrels and legal hassles.
Can You Write Your Own Will?
Traditionally, people have preferred to have their will made by a lawyer because they didn’t know how to make a will on their own. Today, you can easily write your own will (with the help of the internet).
However, if you choose to write your will, it’s crucial you understand how to make a legal will to avoid the possibility of it being contested during the probate process — causing unforseen headaches for your loved ones in the wake of your passing.
How to Make a Will in 10 Steps
It may sound complicated, but writing a will is easier than you might think. We’ve narrowed down the process of how to get a will made into ten simple steps:
1. Understand the Legal Requirements in Your State
Generally, if you write your will according to the laws of your state, it should be deemed valid in all other states. However, this is not always the case.
For example, a holographic will, which is written and signed entirely in the handwriting of the testator (owner of the will), is valid in Texas but not in Florida.
Furthermore, property laws may differ from state to state – especially between “common law” and “community property” states. In a common law state, spouse’s property is considered individually owned. However, in a community property state, any asset acquired during a marriage is considered “community property”.
These differences in state property laws may affect the distribution of your assets.
If you’re moving to a new state, review its wills-related laws or consult an in-state attorney to ensure all parts of your will are accepted and valid.
2. Select an Executor for Your Will
An executor is the person responsible for ensuring the wishes expressed in your will are carried out after you die.
Acting as an executor can present challenges, and requires an on-going time commitment due to lengthy probate processes. Consider offering your executor compensation for accepting the role.
If you don’t name an executor, the court will appoint one on your behalf. You can choose an individual or an institution such as a bank, trust, or company to serve as your executor. Be aware that using an institution as your executor can cost between 2 and 4 percent of your estate’s assets.
3. Choose Beneficiaries
A beneficiary is an individual or entity you’d like to pass your estate on to. While writing your will, you’ll need to designate your assets — or portions of assets — to your beneficiaries.
Consider the following assets when setting up your will:
- Real estate, land, and buildings
- Personal property, such as cars, jewelry, and furniture
- Checking and savings accounts
- Stocks and bonds
- Intellectual property such as copyrights, patents, and royalties
- Business ownership
Over time, your preferred beneficiaries may change. If you decide to add or remove beneficiaries after you’ve made a will, use a codicil to your will (which is a document used to alter, add, remove, or revoke an existing will) to update it.
4. Designate Guardians for Your Dependents
The next stage in making a will is to choose guardians for your dependents, if you have any.
A dependent is a child or relative that relies on you as their primary source of income. For example, your dependents may be both your 8 year old daughter and your 80 year old mother.
Although you’re not legally required to secure permission from a prospective guardian before naming them in your will, you should still consider notifying them. Additionally, you can name alternate guardian(s) in case your first – or even second – choice is unable to assume the responsibilities.
5. Be Specific about Your Wishes
If you want to ensure your assets go to the right people after you die, be specific.
Imagine leaving all your belongings to your second spouse hoping that they know you wanted them to share everything with your children from your first marriage. If you leave your entire estate to a spouse or other family member, they are legally entitled to do what they want with it.
6. Be Realistic About Distribution
If your belongings are to be shared among several beneficiaries, it’s likely those assets will need to be sold in order to divide the value equally. However, if someone in your family is particularly attached to your engagement ring, you could specify that this particular item go to them before your jewelry collection is sold.
In the same way, it’s impossible to divide a house and its belongings among three children, so it’s a good idea to ask if there’s anything specific they want so you can allocate it to them.
7. Include Additional Messages in a Letter
When you sit down to set up a will, listing items and allocating them to your loved ones might seem impersonal.
Thankfully, your last will and testament can be more than just a clinical legal document. If you want to say something meaningful, you may also attach a letter to the will. Doing so lets you say goodbye to your loved ones, as well as clarify your final wishes.
8. Get Witness Signatures
Once you have signed the will yourself, you will need to get witnesses to sign the document.
All states specify that a minimum of two witnesses must sign a will in order for it to be considered legally binding. Some states, such as Vermont, require three witnesses.
Generally, witnesses must be 18 years old, and can’t be named beneficiaries in the will. Consider selecting witnesses that are younger than you, so that they’ll be around if the will is contested in court.
9. Keep Your Will Safe
It’s best for your loved ones to have immediate access to your last will and testament after you’ve died.
Although no states require you to register your completed will, some states and counties allow you to log information about your will, or file it with a probate court.
If you use an estate attorney to write your will, they will likely offer to store it at their office for safekeeping.
However, if you’ve decided to do your own will, somebody reliable should know where you’ve stored it, as well as any associated documents.
10. Update Your Will Regularly
Once you’ve completed your will and are happy with it, you’ll need to review and update it on a regular basis.
Life doesn’t stand still, and you may want to make changes to your will in the future.
You could live for decades after making your will, allowing plenty of time for significant events such as marriage, divorce, the birth of children – even disputes with loved ones.
Unless you update your will, you could end up leaving all your belongings to somebody you stopped speaking to long before your death.
Review and update the document regularly to ensure it mirrors your current wishes regarding the distribution of your belongings after you’ve passed away.