With all the free resources available online, most people won’t need estate planning attorneys to craft a will for them. Creating your own will is a relatively straightforward process that can save you time and money.
Since state law governs wills, each state has its own requirements to create a will. Still, most of these state requirements boil down to three conditions: Your will must be in writing, signed by the testator, and witnessed by at least two people. We’ll explain how to satisfy these minimum requirements and create the best will for your estate planning needs.
Step 1: Make detailed property records
Since your will contains a plan for how you want to distribute your assets, you’ll need to make a list of all the property you own. When compiling these property records, consider the following:
- Land or real estate
- Business stocks or bonds
- Cash in bank accounts
- Valuable personal property, like jewelry, vehicles, or art
If you’re worried about forgetting to list some of your assets, you can include a residuary clause ⓘA residuary clause identifies a person or institution that receives any assets that aren’t accounted for in your will. This is important to have if you don’t want state law to distribute any remaining assets. in your will. A residuary clause works as a catchall for the rest of your property, so the executor ⓘAn executor, also known as a personal representative, is the individual responsible for carrying out the instructions left in someone’s will. knows what to do with any belongings you didn’t specifically name in your will.
Another thing to keep in mind is some assets may already have designated beneficiaries, like life insurance policies or qualified retirement plans.
||Helpful hint: When listing all your assets, don’t forget to include any debts you might have (for example, unpaid taxes, credit cards, student loans, or mortgages). Usually, if a debt is unpaid at death, the estate is responsible for paying it. This will give you a better idea of how much of your estate you’re leaving for your beneficiaries.
Step 2: Name an executor
An executor, or personal representative, is someone legally obligated to administer a person’s estate. In other words, an executor is the person responsible for following the instructions you left in your will.
To be an executor, you have to be at least 18 years old and of sound mind. You may need to have additional qualifications depending on your state’s rules.4
When naming your executor, try to choose someone you’re close with, so they truly understand your intentions during the probate process. You should also consider naming someone healthy who will likely live long enough to take on this role. It’s a good idea to name a “successor executor,” or a backup executor, in case your first choice is unavailable. Being an executor is a lot of responsibility, so make sure you choose someone who is able to address estate matters quickly and efficiently.
Step 3: Add beneficiaries and designate property
A beneficiary is a person designated to receive something from an estate or trust. Simply put, a beneficiary is any person you’re leaving property to in your will. You can name any person or institution (such as a charity) to be a beneficiary in your will. Once you’ve named your beneficiaries, you’ll have to decide what property they should receive.
A general bequest is when you want to leave behind some money from your estate to a beneficiary. For example, if you want to make sure your child is well-supported after you’re gone, you can make a general bequest that designates a certain amount of money from your estate to go directly to that child.
A specific bequest is when you want to leave behind a particular piece of your property to a beneficiary. For example, if you want to leave your stamp collection to your nephew who collects stamps, you can make a specific bequest.
Another useful type of bequest is called a contingent bequest. This allows you to put conditions on whether a beneficiary receives property from your will. For example, if you want to encourage your grandchild to go to college, you can make a bequest to your grandchild on the condition they go to college. If your grandchild doesn’t attend college, they won’t receive that bequest, and it will return to your estate.
Step 4: Formalize your will on paper
All states require you to put your will on paper. This memorializes your intentions, so your executor can refer back to it during the probate process.
Online templates can help you format the document correctly, or you can use an online will maker service that will generate the correct document for you.
||Helpful hint: Some people like to include letters for their loved ones with their will. The executor will deliver these letters of love and support upon your death. It’s a thoughtful way to say your final goodbyes and give your loved ones closure.
Step 5: Sign the document
Once you’re happy with your will, you have to sign the document to make it official.
At least two people must witness you sign the document. After they see you sign your will, they’ll have to place their signatures on the will to prove its authenticity. Only two states slightly modify this requirement:
- Louisiana requires a notary to sign your will in addition to the two witnesses.
- Colorado allows you to have your will witnessed by only one person if the person is a notary.
||Helpful hint: Regardless of requirements, getting your will notarized helps to ensure your will holds up in court. 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.
Step 6: Maintain and update the document as needed
While you can keep your last will and testament in a safe place at home, you need to make sure these estate planning documents outlast you. We recommend taking extra precautions, such as using a fireproof lockbox (like this one for $30) or a safe deposit box at the bank.
Some states allow you to file your will with the probate court to ensure the document is safe and available when needed. If you do this, only you, your attorney, and your executor will be able to access the will during your lifetime. But once you die and your case goes through probate, your will becomes publicly available information. If this raises privacy concerns for you, keep in mind that all probate court matters become public record once they’re closed—even if you don’t have a will.
You don’t need to wait for an important life event to create or update a will. Townsend advised that you should “think of your estate plan as a living document. Give it a regular check-up every three to five years, or whenever life’s chapters change.” She added that some examples of changes are:
- Marriage or divorce
- The birth of a child or grandchild
- Financial changes
- Evolving legal requirements in your state
You can use something called a codicil ⓘA codicil is an amendment to a will. It allows you to add, subtract, or modify something in your will, without having to create a brand new one. to make changes to your will down the line if you ever need to. A codicil can be used to supplement, modify, or even revoke a will.
All you need to do is write down what you want to change about your will, sign it, have at least two witnesses sign it, and keep it with your original will. After your death, the executor will read and interpret both documents together.