Hollywood has made it a dream come true to imagine the idea of inheriting money from a long-lost family member. While this storyline doesn’t often happen IRL, it’s a good reminder to be proactive in sharing your wishes in a written form.
Even though you might find a few ideas during a Netflix binge of your favorite legal series, it’s important to seek out reputable sources when penning the details of how to distribute your assets and belongings.
Keep in mind that writing a will is part of the longer process that you should follow when planning for yourself. Check out our full advanced planning worksheet to see other planning steps that should be addressed. Learning how to write a will can be simple – all you need to do is follow this easy step-by-step process.
What is a Will?
A will (formally known as a last will and testament) is a legally-binding document that records information regarding how to distribute your property, as well as the support and care of minor children. Making a will before you die ensures that your family can honor your wishes.
Also, consider the legal challenges your heirs will face if you die without a will. Not only does a will reduce the likelihood of a family dispute, but it saves everyone time and money to avoid probate and other legal challenges. Not having a will in place means that state officials or judges handle the final decisions.
3 Steps to Writing a Will
Even though it might sound daunting to learn how to create a will, there’s no reason to overcomplicate this process! Follow these simple steps when making a will, so you don’t miss some of the most important details:
1. How to Make a Will Without a Lawyer
With the right tools, you can learn how to create a will without the need to hire a lawyer to draw up the paperwork. But, don’t overlook the benefits of hiring an attorney if you have a unique situation or a complicated estate.
Instead of staring at a blank screen while trying to figure out where to start, search online to look for a last will and testament sample or software program. Here are a few ideas to help you get started making a will:
- Document Templates: A fill-in-the-blank will template can be downloaded online, then edited in your word processing system. Templates are easy if you need to know how to write a will because you can follow the format to fill-in-the-blanks. Look at websites such as RocketLawyer, eForms, or TemplateLab.
- Will Software: You can download these software programs onto your computer. They help you create a will through an “interview” simulation. The computer software asks questions, then builds the will for you using the provided answers. Consider Quicken WillMaker & Trust, which is available for both Mac and PC.
- Cloud-Based Will Systems: Similar to the software program mentioned above, a cloud-based program works through a question-and-answer format. The difference is that the information is stored online instead of your computer hard drive. Online is preferred over local hardware to preserve your information even if your computer crashes. Options include LegalZoom, LawDepot, and US Legal Wills.
2. Creating a Will: What to Include
When creating a will, be thorough in your approach, so you don’t overlook the most important details. Think about all aspects of your estate and any other last wishes you would like to share after you are gone. When you are learning how to write a will, these are the essentials that need to be included:
- Personal Information: Include your full legal name and residential address. The first paragraph should be introductory and state that you are of sound mind and legal age. Set up sections to share your wishes regarding assets, sentimental items, child custody, and more.
- Be as Detailed as Possible: Don’t assume that your family will guess your wishes accurately. Avoid vague language or anything that family members might misinterpret. List specific assets, dollar amounts, and other instructions to ensure asset distribution happens as you desire. Beneficiaries should be designated, including contact information.
- Choose an Executor: You need to assign someone as an executor: the person who oversees the process of closing your estate. This person holds the responsibility of carrying out your wishes as listed in the will. Select a trusted family member or close friend. Or, you might decide to choose an attorney or bank as your executor – but be aware that your estate will pay a fee between 2 – 4% of your assets as compensation for the services.
- Guardian for Children: Who will care for your children after you are gone? If you have children in the home who are under the age of 18, then a guardian needs to be designated. Consider talking to the selected person(s) to see if they are able and willing. You might name 2 or 3 guardians (in order of preference) in case your #1 choice isn’t able to take on the role at the time.
- Guardian for Pets: If you have a pet that is an important part of the family, then don’t overlook the need to provide for the care and placement of the animal. Give the caretaker instructions and money to watch over the pet. It’s usually best to only leave money to the pet – leaving assets to an animal can complicate the situation.
- Personalize the Document: A will can be more than a list of assets and money distribution. This document is your last opportunity to share a message with your loved ones. Use this document to say goodbye and give a heartfelt greeting to the people you care most about.
- Safe Storage Space: Don’t make the mistake of writing a will and then putting it somewhere that it is lost or out of sight. If your family can’t find the document, then it can’t be executed after you are gone. Choose a safe place to file the paperwork, then share the location with someone that you trust. The best solution is to store the will with other essential financial documents, such as bank account numbers, website passwords, and anything else required to access your estate assets.
- Update Often: Keep in mind that it’s ok to change your mind. Review your will every few years to make any appropriate changes. Consider other additions, such as assigning a power of attorney. A last will and testament can go hand-in-hand with a living will, which outlines your care and medical decisions if you are incapacitated.
While it might seem like a good idea to include your funeral plan in the will, you need to remember that most people won’t read the document until after the funeral is over. Instead of creating a section in your will for funeral or cremation services, it’s better to design a separate funeral plan - preferably by coordinating these details through a professional funeral director. Share these wishes with your loved ones in advance, including instructions on where they can access your plan for end-of-life services.
3. Making it Legal
Your last will and testament can be legally binding when you follow the right steps: witnesses need to see the signing of the document. Choose witnesses who are 18 years or older. The legal requirements for witnesses vary by state – you must choose either 2 or 3 witnesses. If family members contest the document in court, then these people will be called to testify to the judge regarding the signing of the will.
An optional step is to have a notary sign the document to add proof that the will matches your desires. Neither the notary nor the witnesses need to know the contents of the will. Simply tell them the purpose of the document and show them where to sign.
Once a will is witnessed, alterations to the document could invalidate or complicate the will. You can amend the document by adding, removing, or changing the details - but you’ll need to revoke the previous version and then ask witnesses to observe as you sign the updated document.
The proactive step of writing a will is essential in sharing your wishes after you are gone. This document will help your family heal without the stress of deciding on the management of the estate.