It doesn’t have to be difficult to write a will. You can do it yourself or hire an attorney. There are some circumstances where it might be beneficial to hire an attorney to create your will. Anthony Cetrangelo, Jr., Esq., a Florida attorney who focuses his practice in the areas of wills, trusts, estates, probate, trust administration and general corporate law, emphasized that you may want to hire an attorney, “if you have a large estate, complex family dynamics, cryptocurrency or other issues that could complicate your estate planning process.”
To create your will yourself, several reputable online services are available—such as Trust & Will, Quicken WillMaker & Trust, and LegalZoom—to create wills and other estate planning documents. These services help you write a will without the cost of an estate planning attorney.
If you know where you want your assets to go when you die, an online service may be a great choice. Follow our guide to create your will using an online service.
||Helpful hint: Listing all of your property and beneficiaries can be overwhelming. Consider making a checklist before you start using this step-by-step guide.
Step 1: Create an account with an online service
The first step is to choose an online service and create an account. Some online services may allow you to download your estate planning documents before filling them out, and some may require you to answer an interactive questionnaire before filling out the documents for you. Check out our best online will makers article for recommendations.
Online estate planning services don’t offer legal advice, but some may provide access to attorney assistance for an additional fee. If you opt for this service, you can schedule a call with an attorney to look over your documents before they’re finalized and discuss questions about your estate plan.
||Helpful hint: When writing a will, consider attaching a letter to the final version. It’s a way to provide final words of love and support to your family, as well as any specific instructions or explanations you want to highlight.
Step 2: Designate an executor
You’ll need to choose someone to be in charge of your will and estate when you pass away. This person is called an executor. This can be a trusted family member, close friend, or a professional, such as a lawyer or accountant. They’ll need to agree to take on this responsibility before you can designate them.
Step 3: Identify beneficiaries
You can leave your estate to any person or institution you want, including family, friends, nonprofits, or schools. You can even leave part of your estate to your pet. You need to clearly identify all beneficiaries in your will to prevent confusion, which can prolong the probate process.
Step 4: Plan for your dependents
You should make arrangements for any minor children or adults with special needs under your care. This doesn’t always mean you designate a person to take care of your children—it can mean you designate a person to choose who takes care of your children if you die. Many people make arrangements for their pets as well.
Step 5: Prepare your assets
Keep in mind you may need to list beneficiaries in other places, such as your bank accounts. Make sure this information matches up so no one can question it during the probate process. If you’re leaving assets to someone who is younger than 18 or not of sound mind ⓘ“Sound mind” refers to the mental state of a person who has been declared by the court as not being able to think, reason, and make decisions in a clear, rational, and logical manner., you’ll need to designate a competent individual to manage that part of your estate for the beneficiary. Make sure records of real estate holdings, life insurance policies, and retirement accounts are all updated and available.
||Helpful hint: Have questions about retirement income? Take this Retirement Income Breakdown Assessment. The assessment will connect you with vetted financial experts if you need additional information.
Step 6: List your debts
Listing your debt while making an estate plan can give you an idea of how much will be left over when your debts are paid. Unpaid taxes, credit cards, student loans, and mortgages are all debts. If a debt is unpaid at death, the estate is usually responsible for paying it. In some states, if a person dies with more debt than assets, you may not have money left over in the estate for the survivors. In other states, laws require survivors to be paid first.
The debt will not pass to your survivors except in extenuating circumstances, such as:
- You shared the debt.
- The person cosigned a loan with you.
- You live in a community property state and the debt is a shared marital debt.2
- You live in a state that requires repayment of certain health-related debt.3
Step 7: Execute your will
Once you’ve taken the steps above and filled in the corresponding sections of your will forms, your documents should be complete. An online will service will walk you through the process or provide instructions.
Then, it’s time to finalize your documents. Once you have the completed originals, you’ll need to do the following.
Sign your will and have it witnessed
At least three signatures are required for a valid will: your and two witnesses’ full names. You should print your name, above or beside the signature, and date it. The witnesses must see you sign the will. Most states require witnesses to be “disinterested,” meaning they don’t stand to inherit anything from you.
||Helpful hint: To ensure your will holds up in court, take the additional step of notarizing your will. You can find a notary at your bank or some FedEx or UPS locations, or you can hire a mobile notary to come to you.
It’s important to have copies of your will to store away from the original, which you should keep in a secure place, such as a bank deposit box, lawyer’s office, or home safe. You should store the will with any other estate planning documents. It may even be helpful to have a written list of all the documents stored together, so anyone who retrieves them will know if something is missing.
Update your will when necessary
According to Travis Christiansen, Esq., a Utah estate planning attorney for over two decades, “most estate planning documents, including your will, should be updated every five years unless there is a life change like a marriage, divorce, a child [or grandchild] was born or adopted, or your income/belongings changed significantly – like [if] you won the lottery.”
Depending on the service you use, your online will-creation software may hold your will in a platform you can revisit and change easily. To update your will, you can either add a document to your will specifying the change to be made (this document is called a “codicil”) or write a new will that states your old will is no longer valid.