How to Make a Will (Whether DIY or With a Lawyer)
How to Make a Will (Whether DIY or With a Lawyer)

How to Make a Will (Whether DIY or With a Lawyer)

Creating a will doesn't have to be expensive and complicated. Here's how to make sure your wealth and belongings are passed onto your loved ones.

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While it might seem like a drag to make your will, it will be even more of one for your loved ones if you die without leaving instructions for how you'd like your assets distributed. We'll walk you through how to create a will from start to finish so you can feel ready to tackle this important estate planning step. If you have a straightforward situation, creating your will likely also will be. And if it isn't, don't worry—an estate planning lawyer is always an option.

Do I need a will?

Before you worry about how to make a will, it's important to determine whether you actually need one. Despite common misconceptions that only those with wealth or complex financial situations need wills, in reality, most people do need one.

A will can be beneficial for a number of reasons. For starters, it allows you to specify who gets what of your assets as well as who you would like to care for your minor children if you have them. A will also makes matters easier for your heirs. You're able to appoint an executor, who will handle distributing your assets to your designated beneficiaries and who you know you can trust to handle any other estate affairs. It can also save you time and money in probate, the court-supervised process that proves the validity of a will.

What happens if you die without a will?

Understanding what happens if you die without a will further underscores the importance of having one. If you die and don't have a will, your assets may not end up going where you would like them to. Instead, the laws in the state in which you live will determine who gets what. Generally speaking, this will include spouses, registered domestic partners and blood relatives, though exact laws vary from state to state. If no relatives are located, generally the assets will go to the state. 

If you die without a will and have minor children, the court will be in charge of appointing their guardian.

How to make a will: a step-by-step guide

If you think a will is right for your estate planning situation, here's how to make one.

1. Decide what assets to include in your will

The first step in making a will is deciding what assets you would like to include in it. It may be helpful to make a complete list of everything you own. This should include both physical property, like any real estate, family heirlooms, jewelry or vehicles, as well as financial assets, such as bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts and insurance policies. Don't forget to include any pets (or that crypto you bought on Coinbase).

You don't need to include accounts in your will that already have a beneficiary named, such as a life insurance policy or your retirement account, or a bank or investment account with a payable-on-death (POD) provision.

2. Determine who your beneficiaries will be

Next up, you'll need to decide who will get what. Your beneficiaries, or heirs, can include family, friends and even charitable organizations. Make sure to clearly identify each beneficiary, using their full legal name, and be specific about what it is you'd like them to inherit. You may also consider naming secondary beneficiaries in case one of your heirs passes before you do.

3. Pick a guardian for your kids

If you have any children who are minors or dependents, you'll need to name a guardian who will be legally responsible for them in the event of your death. The other parent will usually assume guardianship if one parent were to die, but it's important to have a plan in place in the event both parents die.

Make sure to inform the person you are selecting for this role to ensure they are up for the job and feel willing and able to assume the responsibility.

4. Choose an executor

You'll also need to select an executor. This is who will carry out the terms of your will, which includes overseeing the probate process, distributing your assets to your designated beneficiaries and paying off any debts and taxes owed by your estate.

You should select someone you trust and who can handle the responsibility — perhaps a family friend, one of your adult children or even an attorney. You can also name more than one person as executor for your will.

5. Sign the will

Last but not least, you'll need to sign your will to make it legally valid. Many states require that you sign your will in front of witnesses, usually at least two. They must be at least 18 years old. Often, the witnesses cannot be a beneficiary.

Once you've signed your will, make sure to find a safe place to store it, and let your beneficiary know where it's located.

How much does it cost to make a will?

The cost of creating a will depends on whether you do it yourself or hire a lawyer. Cost can also vary based on the complexity of your situation as well as your location.

If you hire a lawyer, you could pay anywhere from $100 to $1,000. Should you opt to do it yourself, you'll typically pay less than $100.

How to make a will for free (and is this a good idea?)

As you can see, it's much less expensive to make your will yourself than to hire a lawyer — but can you do it for free? There are a number of online services that allow you to do so, such as FreeWill and Do Your Own Will. With these services, you generally just fill out a preset form, providing your personal information and details on what you'd like to distribute to which beneficiaries.

Depending on your situation, this may be a fine option. For instance, if your estate planning situation is very straightforward, a free will service may cover your needs. On the other hand, if you have a larger estate, minor children and want to divvy up your assets among a number of people, another option may be better. Keep in mind you won't have a professional to turn to for advice if you DIY it.

Do I need a lawyer to make a will?

You don't need a lawyer to make a will, but, depending on your situation, it may make the process easier and ensure everything is done correctly. Here are some instances in which it may be helpful to bring in legal assistance to craft your will:

  • You have a large number of assets to leave behind
  • You want to make provisions for minor children, including stepchildren and special needs children
  • You have a blended family
  • You want to disinherit a spouse or child
  • You are a business owner
  • You have more complex plans for how you'd like to pass along your assets
  • You have a family member with long-term care needs
  • You are concerned about taxes on your heirs

Still, a lawyer isn't at all necessary for a will to be legally valid. If your estate isn't complex and you feel confident in your ability to handle the creation of your will, you can always go it alone.

Updating your will as your investments change and grow

Once you create a will, don't set it aside and forget about it. A will is a document you should regularly update as your assets change and grow, as do your plans for the future. You want to make sure your will still actually states your wishes in the event you were to die. 

It's a good idea to revisit your will every few years, as well as following any major life events, such as a birth in the family, the death of a beneficiary, a marriage, divorce, or a move to a new house or another state. This will help ensure your will continues to reflect your current life situation and that your assets are distributed as you'd like.