- A last will and testament or “will” is an important estate planning document that gives loved ones direction for how to divide your assets according to your wishes.
- Estate planning includes more than wills—you should also consider creating a living will to make health care decisions in advance or a power of attorney to appoint someone else to make decisions, if necessary.
- You can create a will with the help of an online estate planning service for $0–$300.
Creating a will doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive with an online will maker. According to research published by Gallup, 24% of Americans 65 and older don’t have a will, but it’s important to have one to give your loved ones guidance on how to divide your assets after you’re gone.1
You can create your own with the help of an online estate planning service for an average fee of $160—much lower than the cost of an estate planning attorney, which can cost hundreds of dollars per hour.
This article will walk you through the basics of how to make a will, including how to write one and how to make sure it’s valid.
Why you can trust our expert review
Our Reviews Team consists of trained lawyers who have spent hundreds of hours researching estate planning and using the services we recommend. We only recommend services we find to be helpful and accurate. To develop our reviews and guidance, we:
- Spent 200 hours researching and using online estate planning services
- Consulted with estate planning attorneys and financial planners
- Mystery shopped each brand we reviewed
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What is a will and why do I need one?
A will, also known as a last will and testament, is a legal document that explains what happens to a person’s estate after they die. “Estate” refers to anything a person owns at the time of death. A will explains what happens with financial accounts, any type of property, and dependents. Wills are legally binding, but anyone can contest them (meaning challenge their validity) through the state court system.
Passing away without a will is known as dying “intestate” (in contrast, “testate” describes someone who has passed away with a will). When someone dies intestate, their estate goes through the probate process—the process of distributing an estate with or without a will—according to state laws.
If you have preferences for what happens to your property when you’re gone, you’ll need a valid will. Once your estate is in probate court, it’s too late for your family to give instructions, even if they know your preferences.
How to make a will without a lawyer in 7 steps
It doesn’t have to be difficult to write a will. You can do it yourself or hire an attorney. 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
You should update your will any time you go through life changes, such as marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, or purchase of a home or car. Some attorneys suggest revisiting your will every five years to make sure it’s up to date.
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.
Will, living will, and power of attorney: What do I need?
A will is only one part of an estate plan. You may also want to consider a living will and a power of attorney (POA). Unlike your will, which provides guidance for after you die, a living will and POA are only valid while you’re alive.
A living will gives instructions for medical care and end-of-life decisions, such as what treatments you do and do not want, whether you want medical professionals to use life-extending measures, and other similar decisions. It guides family or medical staff to honor your decisions in case you’re unable to express your wishes, and it generally takes effect when you’re no longer able to communicate.
A POA designates a person to make decisions for you if you’re unable to, whether permanently or temporarily. This can include medical, financial, and/or legal decision-making.
Most online estate planning services provide all three documents for an additional cost. Here are a few scenarios to help you choose the right estate planning package for you.
Fred is 60 years old, married with two kids. He has some money saved and plans to pay off his house in five years. He and his wife are in good health. Fred might consider purchasing an estate planning package with all three documents: a will, living will, and power of attorney.
Will: Recommended. Fred needs a will to ensure professionals distribute his money and other assets according to his wishes, rather than the default state laws.
Living Will: Recommended. Fred should also have a living will that makes end-of-life decisions in advance.
Power of Attorney: Recommended. Living wills may not be comprehensive and don’t take effect when a person is only temporarily unable to communicate. A POA ensures Fred’s wishes are honored any time he is unable to make decisions for himself. For example, in a medical emergency, a medical POA would take effect if Fred is only temporarily incapacitated.
Lily is 70 and lives alone. She rents her apartment and doesn’t have any savings, but she does own her car. She has two living siblings who each have adult children. Lily wants to leave her car to her niece when she dies.
Will: Recommended. It’s always a good idea to have a will. Lily can designate her niece as the beneficiary to receive her car. Otherwise, her estate will go through probate and ownership of the car may be split between her two siblings.
Living Will: Not as important as a will. Living wills typically apply to end-of-life scenarios, but POAs can take effect any time a person is unable to communicate, even temporarily.
Power of Attorney: Something to consider. Lily might consider having a will and a POA. It’s unlikely she will become unable to make decisions for herself anytime soon, but it is possible.
Glen and Susan are in their 80s with two grown children and several grandchildren. They live together but aren’t legally married and have no plans to get married.
Will: Recommended. Glen and Susan should both have a will. If either of them were to die, assets may automatically pass to their grown children rather than the surviving partner, since Glen and Susan aren’t married.
Living Will: Not as important as a will. A living will would take the pressure off of the other partner for end-of-life decisions, but a POA is more comprehensive.
Power of Attorney: Recommended. If either of them were to become unable to communicate, decision-making authority might not automatically pass to the other partner. If Glen wants Susan to make decisions for him in an emergency, and vice versa, they will need to make it clear in a legally binding document.
Cost of making a will
The cost of creating a will can range widely, from completely free to thousands of dollars. It depends on your needs and the payment structure of the service you choose.
One free option is creating a holographic will, which is entirely written, dated, and signed in the testator’s own handwriting, which eliminates the need for witnesses. In other words, it is a will that’s been created without the assistance of a lawyer or any other third party. While it may seem like the easiest option, our Reviews Team doesn’t recommend creating a holographic will because they can be prone to fraud or misinterpretation.
Another free option is using a legal service platform that has a free seven-day trial period, like Rocket Lawyer. You’ll just need to answer questions and input credit card information before you can download and print. You’ll only be charged if you forget to cancel the trial before it ends.
If you’re looking for an online will maker that offers high end customer support along the way, most basic will packages start at $39.95. More comprehensive packages are available for $100–$300, and complex online estate planning services can cost up to $5,000. Top tiers of online services often come with access to attorney assistance. Attorney assistance means a network of attorneys will answer any questions you have regarding your estate plan via scheduling phone calls through the online service platform.
The cost of hiring an attorney to create a will for you depends on several factors:
- The average hourly cost of estate planning attorneys where you live
- The attorney’s experience level
- The package of documents you want
- The level of complexity of your legal needs
- Whether the attorney charges a flat or hourly fee
Attorney fees can often be hundreds of dollars per hour, which can add up quickly. The amount of time required could be 30 minutes for a simple POA, or it could take days, weeks, or months for a large estate planning package. A flat fee will let you know what to expect as far as payment, but not necessarily time. Most attorneys offer a free, brief consultation where you can ask about payment arrangements.
Legal requirements to make a will
Creating a valid will requires you to meet three general legal conditions: (requirements may vary slightly from state to state):
- Age and mental capacity: You must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind to create a will.
- Testamentary intent: If you make a list of your property and the individuals or institutions you want the property to go to when you die, a court may consider it a valid will even if you didn’t know you were creating a will. The court may find “testamentary intent,” the intent to say how property will be distributed when you die. As long as the intent is clear, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve labeled it a last will and testament—a court will likely consider it a valid will.
- Signatures: You and at least two witnesses who don’t stand to benefit from the will in any way must sign it. If a will maker cannot physically sign a will, they can direct someone to sign for them in the presence of witnesses or a notary public.
Estate planning terms to know
As you learn how to write a will without a lawyer, it may be helpful to know what certain legal terms mean:
- The testator is the person who created the will and has passed away.
- An executor or personal representative is identified in the will as the individual responsible for “executing the will,” or facilitating the probate process.
- Beneficiaries are individuals or institutions that receive something from the execution of a will. In other words, beneficiaries stand to benefit from the will.
- Adding a codicil to a will updates the will by adding a document at the end rather than rewriting a portion of the will. A codicil can explain, modify, or revoke part of a will.
- A residuary clause identifies a person or institution that receives any assets not accounted for in your will. This is important to have if you don’t want any remaining assets to be left up to the state to distribute.
- You can attach a self-proving affidavit to a will to “prove” to the court the will is valid. Executors must sometimes go through a hearing—potentially requiring witnesses—to prove to the court the will belongs to the testator and is valid. A self-proving affidavit does this automatically, but it’s not an option in every state. Some states consider a valid will to be self-proving, so an additional affidavit isn’t necessary.
- Power of attorney means you’ve given authority to another person to make legal and financial decisions for you if you’re unable to do so yourself.
Estate planning brings you peace of mind, but it’s about more than that—it gives your loved ones guidance on how to move forward when you’re gone. This is why everyone can benefit from estate planning.
Having multiple estate planning documents, like a will, living will, and POA is ideal, but not always necessary. At the very least, having a valid will is much better than no estate plan at all.
Unless you have a very large estate or complex planning needs, an online estate planning service can get you started with the most important estate planning documents, and even attorney assistance for an additional cost. While attorneys can sometimes charge by the hour, which adds up quickly, online services typically charge a reasonable flat fee.
Frequently asked questions
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- Gallup, Inc. How Many Americans Have a Will? June 23, 2021. Found on the internet at https://news.gallup.com/poll/351500/how-many-americans-have-will.aspx
- IRS.gov. Community Property Laws Generally. Found on the internet at https://www.irs.gov/publications/p555#en_US_202001_publink100026043:~:text=in%20one%20of%20the%20following%20community%20property%20states
- World Population Review. Filial Responsibility Laws by State. Found on the internet at https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/filial-responsibility-laws-by-state