You've probably heard that if you do nothing else to take care of your legal affairs, you should write a will, and it's pretty good advice. A will is simply a legal document that gives instructions on what should happen to your property when you die. If you don't make a will before your death, state law will determine who gets your property, and a judge may decide who will raise your children if they're not yet adults. The results in both cases might not be what you would've wanted.
Writing such an important document can be daunting, but it doesn't need to be. A basic will is enough for many people. And if all you need is a basic will, you probably don't even need a lawyer.
If the following statements describe you, a basic will is probably enough:
On the other hand, if any of the following applies to your situation, then you probably need something more than a basic will:
By and large, if you are under age 50, don't expect to leave assets worth several millions of dollars (that is, valuable enough to be subject to estate taxes), and aren't yet worried about probate, you can probably get by with a basic will. But as you grow older and acquire more property, you may want to engage in more sophisticated planning.
Take a common situation where a married couple wants to leave their property to each other or, if they die together, to their children in equal shares. They also want to name a personal guardian for their children, who are still minors. The spouses can safely make simple wills themselves without hiring a costly expert.
Here are a few examples of real-life situations where a basic will is all that's needed.
Note that you don't have to be a single person to make an easy will. You can be married and have children and still be able to write a basic will.
Even a simple will can easily do the following:
At a minimum, you should explain how you want your property to be distributed when you die, and you should name an executor to help carry out your wishes.
If you have children who are not yet adults, you'll also want to name both a personal guardian (to care for your children) and a property guardian (to handle the money and property you leave to your children). Often the same person is named to serve both roles.
You can create an easy will in many different ways, including:
Once you've created the document, you must also take the following steps to make the will legal:
While you don't need to get your will notarized for it to be valid, attaching a notarized, sworn statement (called a self-proving affidavit) can help your inheritors save time and money later, when they begin the probate process.
Can you simply write down your wishes and call it a day? It depends. Handwritten, unwitnessed wills (called "holographic wills" in legal terminology) are legal only in some states, so you're running into dangerous territory. Even if your state recognizes holographic wills, these types of wills open themselves up to more challenges. If your state allows handwritten, unwitnessed wills, at the very least, make sure your handwritten will is signed.
Wills do not avoid probate, not even simple wills. If you leave anything more than a small amount of property through a will, probate court proceedings will probably be necessary after your death. Although it varies from state to state, probate can take six months to over a year, and cost your estate a significant sum in lawyers' and court fees. And your beneficiaries will probably get little or nothing until probate is complete.
But if you need only a basic will, you have little reason to concern yourself now with probate. If you're relatively young and healthy and you don't have piles of money, your real concern is to make legal arrangements for the statistically unlikely event that you will die suddenly and unexpectedly. You've almost certainly got plenty of time to plan for probate avoidance later.