It’s never too early to start making end-of-life plans. In fact, the sooner you do so, the more time you’ll have to reflect and give your legacy some careful thought. For instance, how do you want to be remembered? What do you want to leave behind? And who do you want to oversee your estate?
A big part of exploring your wishes and making final arrangements involves writing a will. After all, your will is your opportunity to decide how you’d like to distribute your assets after you pass.
But when it comes down to actually drafting your will, you probably have some questions, like can you write a will at home? And more importantly, can you do it for free? The answers are yes — in some circumstances, you can write your own will and do it for free.
Our guide below discusses some steps you may wish to take when writing your own will.
Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice. You should consult with an attorney before you rely on this information.
How to write a simple will in 10 steps
First things first, can you legally write a will without a lawyer? Yes, it’s legal, but you’ll want to do your due diligence to ensure you’re drafting a valid document. Many people follow these steps to navigate writing their own will.
1. Find a reputable resource
The first step will involve research. It’s important to go with a reputable source that provides you with the appropriate language and outline to make your will binding.
While reviewing different resources, you’ll likely come across various free online will-preparation companies. These are helpful if you’re wondering how to write a will for free, as they provide questionnaires, blank forms, customizable templates, and recommendations free of charge. FreeWill, for example, is an easy-to-use online tool that helps you draft a legal will according to your jurisdiction. Rocket Lawyer is another popular option that offers complimentary templates you can customize, convert into a PDF, and print out.
But if you don’t mind paying a fee for a service, you can purchase a program with more advanced features like ones that will connect you with an attorney for legal advice. For instance, LegalZoom provides legal counsel before and after writing your will. If you have a particularly high-stakes case or complicated requests, you may want to pay for one of these services for more in-depth and personalized assistance. In California, for example, if you have any real estate or more than $166,000.00 in assets you will want to draft a trust to avoid Probate Court and the steep fees associated with it.
2. Research your state’s requirements regarding wills
Drafting requirements vary state by state. For example, in some states, a beneficiary can be your witness, but in others, that’s not permitted.
Depending on the service you go with when drafting your will, the online tool or program may have features that help you align your will with your state rules. But if that’s not the case, be sure to research your state’s will requirements to ensure your will stands up in court.
3. Consider a Trust
Trusts are for more than the super-wealthy — they can be an essential part of proper estate planning. A will is a document that directs a court to distribute your assets a certain way, and a trust is an agreement you make with your trustee who will oversee how those assets get distributed. Therefore, trusts can have more robust terms and conditions and can provide more flexibility on the terms you can impose when passing on your assets. And a trust costs a lot less to set up, especially if you do so properly at home.
Many states, especially the high population states like Massachusetts, New York, and California have probate processes that make a trust the most efficient way to pass along your assets to your beneficiaries.
When you only have a will, a court will oversee the process. This can be great in a situation where you don’t anticipate conflict amongst beneficiaries. However, in most situations, a trustee can resolve the conflicts in your interest and in private without the involvement of the court. If there’s an issue with the trustee breaching duties there is still the protection of litigating trust terms.
4. Define your assets
Now that you’ve sorted out a template or tool to help you draft up your will, it’s time to give your assets some thought.
First, consider any outstanding debts you’ll want to cover. This could be anything from funeral costs to medical bills, but it could also include any lingering financial debts, like secured loans that you don’t want to burden your loved ones with. In your will, you can determine how you want to pay these debts, such as using money from your estate or your retirement accounts.
Now, what assets are you looking to bequeath? Of course, these can be tangible items, like family heirlooms, keepsakes, cash, and real estate, but they can also be any mutual funds, shares, bonds, and stock that you want to divvy up. Make sure to have a list of your assets somewhere in your estate planning documents. The minimum information your executor or trustee will need is the name of the institutions where you have accounts and the type of account.
And don’t forget about your business endeavors. If you own a business, provide clear instructions on how to move forward, whether that’s signing the business over to someone else or dissolving it and distributing the proceeds. Again, in this scenario, it may be more beneficial to have a trust which allows for in-depth planning on what to do with those assets versus a will which just gives those assets to your beneficiaries outright.
Note that this guide isn’t legal advice. Better Place Forests does not provide legal advice. As we mention below we encourage you to consult an attorney.
5. Consider guardianship of your minor children and/or pets
If you have minor children or pets, you’ll want to make sure they’re cared for after you pass away. Guardianship can be a sensitive topic, so give it some careful thought and consideration. We suggest having open and honest conversations with those who you’d like to care for your children or pets once you’re gone, as you don’t want to spring the responsibility on someone who’s not prepared to take on that commitment.
Once you’ve found an appropriate relative or close friend willing to take on the responsibility, you can list them among your beneficiaries.
6. Decide on your beneficiaries
With a better idea of your assets, you can begin deciding who you want to inherit them. These people are known as your beneficiaries.
You can choose individual primary beneficiaries, such as your children, grandchildren, and best friend. However, we recommend identifying secondary beneficiaries, too, in case you outlive your primary beneficiaries. To ensure your assets go to the correct beneficiaries, be sure to include their full legal names in your will.
Your beneficiary doesn’t have to be a person, though. You can also donate money or assets to specific nonprofit organizations or charities. If you go this route, list the organization’s name and EIN.
During this step, it’s important to be very specific about what exactly goes to whom. You don’t want there to be any confusion or room for contesting after the fact.
7. Designate an executor
The next step in writing your will involves identifying an executor. An executor is an individual who you choose to oversee your estate, which involves managing your will, such as notifying beneficiaries and divvying up your assets.
Because you’ll want your executor to be someone you know and trust, it’s ok if your executor is also a beneficiary. This is both legal and acceptable. If you set up a trust this person will also serve as successor trustee. This is a position that operates largely the same way as executor, but usually without court supervision.
8. Consider consulting with a lawyer
While it may be possible to write a will at home without a lawyer, there are some circumstances in which you may want to consult legal advice. For instance, maybe you have complicated family dynamics or own real estate in multiple states. Or perhaps you’re worried about someone trying to contest your will in court. Legal counsel may not be absolutely necessary, but it’s a good idea to get a professional’s opinion when it comes to something as important as your final wishes. If you write a will with an attorney and the attorney does something wrong, he or she is responsible to your beneficiaries and can be held to account. Doing it on your own means only you are responsible for any outcomes, intended or otherwise.
9. Sign your will
With everything outlined in your will, now you can sign it — but don’t do so without two witnesses! Signing your will with two witnesses present seals the deal and makes it legitimate in the eyes of the law. In other words, your will isn’t valid without a properly witnessed signature.
This is where you’ll need to go back and review your state’s rules. Some states have specific requirements around where you leave your signature, while others have strict witnessing laws. That said, many states require two “disinterested witnesses” present when you sign, which means individuals who are not otherwise named in your will.
10. Make final arrangements
Once you’ve finalized and signed your will, be sure to keep it in a safe place, whether that’s a locked filing cabinet, safety deposit, or your attorney’s law office. Some software programs may even provide you with a digital platform for storing your will.
Last but not least, there’s no use in writing a will if no one knows about it. Tell your loved ones and executor that you have a will and where to find it. And if you’ve stored it in a lock-protected place, give them instructions with the combination code or the location of the key.
When making end-of-life arrangements, your will is just one of several important documents you’ll want to begin considering, along with a power of attorney, living trust, and letter of instruction. For more information and advice, review our end-of-life planning checklist, and consult an attorney.