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How to Write a Will

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

Updated by , Attorney
Nolo Nolo

Most people know they need a will, but aren't sure how to write a simple 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.

Templates for Writing a Will

How to draft a will? 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 formsfill in the blank documents that you can edit with your word processor
  • Statutory formsforms written into the laws of just a few states
  • Will booksbooks usually provide thorough instructions for filling out flat forms, and may also offer additional information about estate planning
  • Will softwarewith estate planning software, you answer "interview" questions, then the program builds the will for you
  • Online will programsthese 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 do some or all of the following:

  • Distribute your property after you die. This is the main purpose of having a will.
  • Name your executor. Your will should also name someone to handle the probate process for your estate.
  • Name guardians for young children and their property. If you have children who are minors, you should name both a personal guardian (to take care of them) and a property guardian (to handle any property they inherit). These two roles are often filled by the same person.
  • Provide for pets. You can use your will to name a caretaker for a pet, as well as to provide money to that caretaker in hopes it will be used for your pet.
  • Serve as a backup for a living trust. If you make a living trust (usually to avoid probate), you'll still need a simple will anyway, as a backup.

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

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 complete your will writing tasks, 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 affidavitthis 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.

Keeping Your Will Updated

After you've created your will, don't forget to keep your will updated. Particularly after major life events such as getting married or divorced, having or adopting children, acquiring or losing significant property, and the deaths of beneficiaries (inheritors) or your executor, consider whether your will still meets your needs. To update your will, you can usually easily create a new will or use an amendment called a "codicil," though it's usually best to make a new 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.

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