How to Write a Will

After you decide that you want a will, how do you write one?

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Most people know they need one, but aren’t sure how to write a will.  The first decision you’ll need to make is whether to write your will yourself.  Most people can write a simple will without a lawyer, but some situations require professional help.  Read more about this choice in Making a Will: Are Lawyers Optional?

How to Write a Will Yourself

If you decide to write your own will, you’ll probably want some help creating your document, you’ll want to know what to include, and you’ll want to know how to make it legal.

Will Templates

First, choose a tool to help you write your will.  You might use a book that gives you a variety of will clauses that you put together, or you might use a program that puts it together for you.  In any case, you’ll want to make a document that is typed, because although handwritten wills are permitted in some states, creating a formal, typed document is less likely to cause trouble after your death. 

Find a will making tool that you can trust.  There are several types, including:

  • Flat forms –fill in the blank documents that you can edit with your word processor
  • Statutory forms – forms written into the laws of just a few states
  • Will books –  books usually provide thorough instructions for filling out flat forms, and may also offer additional information about estate planning
  • Will software – with estate planning software, you answer “interview” questions, then the program builds the will for you
  • Online will programs – these work like will software, but instead of loading the program on the computer, you make your will online

Read more about these options in Types of Will Templates.

No matter what type of will template you prefer, make sure to choose one that comes with clear plain-English instructions so that you can feel confident that you are making a will that does what you want it to do.

What to Include in Your Will

No state requires specific language to make a will.  The best wills are those that clearly reflect the wishes of the will maker.  So what you include in your will depends on what you want your will to do for you.  Most people use a will to distribute their property after they die.  A will can also:

  • Name your executor.
  • Name guardians for young children and their property.
  • State how to pay debts and taxes.
  • Provide for pets.
  • Serve as a backup for a living trust.

Here are some things that you shouldn’t try to do in your will:

  • Put conditions on your gifts. (I give my house to Susan if she finishes college.)
  • Leave instructions for final arrangements.
  • Leave property for your pet.
  • Make arrangements for money or property will be left another way. (Property in a trust or property for which you’ve named a pay-on-death beneficiary.)

To learn more, read What a Will Won’t Do.  If you want to do any of these things, get a lawyer’s help.  See below.

Making Your Will Legal

After you use a will template to write your will, you’ll need to do a few things to make it legal:

  • Sign your will.
  • Have two witnesses sign your will.
  • In most states, have a notary sign a self-proving affidavit – this is optional.

Your witnesses do not need to know what’s in your will.  Simply gather them around, say ‘this is my will’ and have them sign. Wills do not need to be signed by a notary public to be legal and binding.  However, in most states you can also attach a self-proving affidavit and those must be signed by a notary public. Self-proving affidavits don’t affect the legality of your will, but they do make your will easier to probate after your death.

Read more about finalizing your will in Executing a Will.

Having a Lawyer Write Your Will

If you decide that your situation is too complicated to write your own will, or if you would just rather have a professional do it, then you’ll need a lawyer’s help.  But hiring a lawyer doesn’t mean you need to hand over the entire process or spend an outrageous amount of money.  Instead, you can educate yourself about the law.  Doing so will save you money because you will need  less time with the attorney and increase the likelihood that the attorney will draft a document that reflects your wishes.  

Read more about Working With a Lawyer.

To learn more about wills and how they fit into a larger estate plan, go to the Wills section of Nolo.com.

by: , Attorney

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