The Simple Will: No Frills, No Fuss, No Anxiety

A basic will may be all you need.

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.

Is a Simple Will for You, or Do You Need Something More Customized?

If the following statements describe you, a basic will is probably enough:

  • You're under age 50.
  • You're in pretty good health.
  • You don't expect to owe estate tax at your death.
  • You aren't worried about the expenses and delays of probate.

On the other hand, if any of the following applies to your situation, then you probably need something more than a basic will:

  • You expect to owe estate tax when you die, or when your spouse does. (See Nolo's Estate Tax section.)
  • You want to control what happens to property after your death—for example, you want to leave some property in trust for your child and have it go to your grandchildren when your child dies.
  • You have a child with a disability or other special need that you wish to address in your estate plan. (See Special Needs Trusts.)
  • You have children from a prior marriage and you fear conflict between them and your current spouse.
  • You think someone might contest your will, claiming that you were not mentally competent when writing it, or that the will was procured by fraud or duress.
  • You want to avoid probate to save your loved ones time and money.

When a Basic Will Is Enough

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.

  • Heather and Jerome, in their late 30s, own a home, two cars, and some savings. Their net worth totals $300,000. They have one child, Mark, age 11. Heather and Jerome each prepares a will leaving all property to each other. If they die at the same time, Mark is to receive all their property. Heather and Jerome agree that Heather's brother will care for Mark and manage the property until Mark turns 18.
  • Sam, a widower with three grown children, owns property with a net worth of $400,000. He creates a will leaving all his property equally to the children. He specifies that if any child dies before him, that child's share is to be divided equally between the surviving children.
  • Barbara is a single mother with two teenage children. Though she's not on great terms with her ex-husband, he's a decent father and pays child support more or less on time. Barbara's will leaves all her property equally to her children. Because she does not want her ex-husband managing money left to her children if she dies, she uses her will to appoint her sister Debbie to manage each child's property until that child turns 18.

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.

What Should You Include in a Basic Will?

Even a simple will can easily do the following:

  • leave your property to the people and organizations you choose
  • name a guardian to care for your minor children if you can't
  • name someone to manage property you leave to minor children (your children or someone else's), and
  • name your executor, the person in charge of making sure that the terms of your will are carried out.

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.

How to Write a Simple Will That Is Legally Valid

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.

A Basic Will Doesn't Avoid Probate

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.

If you want to plan for probate avoidance now, consider using a living trust instead of a will in order to avoid probate, and familiarize yourself with other probate-avoidance techniques.

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