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How to write a will

10 steps to take when creating a will

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by Jessica Render ConsumerAffairs Research Team
LegalZoom
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When you pass away, your family, friends and lawyers will look to your will to decide what to do with your estate. Creating a will isn’t as complicated as it may seem — you can do it on your own with minimal help or hire an attorney to draft one for you. In this article, we break down 10 important steps to consider when writing your will.

What is a will and why is it important?

A will is a legally binding document that directs where your assets will go and lets your family and friends know they’re following your wishes after your passing. It’s even more important for families who have young children, a large extended family or an abundance of assets.

Without a will in place, your loved ones will have to go to court in order to figure out how to divide your assets, which can be expensive and cumbersome. It can also be extremely stressful and divisive for some families.

How to create a will

Follow these 10 tips to create a legally-binding will that covers what matters most.

  1. Contact a lawyer for help. While you can write a will without a lawyer’s help, having a professional on your side ensures you take care of the minor details you might otherwise miss. A lawyer helps ensure everything is legally binding and provides guidance to help reduce tax burdens for your loved ones. Simply put, they’ll help make sure everything is handled efficiently.
  2. Use an online will template or online legal service. If you don’t want to go through a lawyer, you can use an online resource for help. For example, LegalZoom is a popular website for writing and executing a will. Other resources include online templates and will books that help guide you through the process. While these are much more affordable than hiring a lawyer, they may not be as robust. Depending on your assets and how complicated you expect your will to be, one may be better than the other.
  3. Make a list of all assets. Creating an extensive list of all of your valuable assets is an important step in the process of creating a will. It helps you understand exactly you’re leaving to people. Assets you should list include property, homes, cars, jewelry, money, investments and financial arrangements. You’ll also want to write out relevant information, like where you keep the keys to the beach house and what your password is for your online accounts. This will just help streamline the process for everyone and keep information as organized as possible.
  4. Select beneficiaries for your assets. A will is not the place to be vague. Specifically assign your assets to your beneficiaries as precisely as possible. If you leave your will vague and do things like give all your money to your spouse in hopes they will assign it out to children and grandchildren fairly, you run the risk of your wishes not being followed. Instead, take the time to divvy it out exactly how you want.
  5. Choose a guardian for any minor children. If your children are under 18, it’s extremely important to have a will. Without a will that dictates who you to be guardians for your children, the state will decide this for you. In your will, list the people you want to take your children in order of preference. This will help in case someone is unable to care for your children at the time of your death.
  6. Choose an executor. An executor is the person who executes on your will and ensures everything happens the way you want. This is a very important job and can be a lot of work, so choosing the right person is important. This person can be a family member, an attorney, an accountant, a bank or even your trust company. Most experts recommend that you list two executors, one that is older and one that is younger, in case something happens to the older one before your will goes into effect.
  7. List any funeral preferences. In addition to how you want your assets to be divided, your will is also the place where you can make requests regarding your funeral preferences. For example, if you want to get cremated, this would be where you’d write that. While your funeral preferences aren’t legally binding (because your body is not considered “property” for estate planning purposes), it can help guide your loved ones during the planning process.
  8. Consider adding a personal letter to be read after your passing. Some people like to write a personal letter for their family and friends as a means of providing context to their will. For example, if you left your house to one of your children and your prized antique car to another, you can explain your rationale in your personal letter. If you try to add this information to the will itself, it may risk ruining the legality of a document. Writing a personal letter is the best way to explain yourself without putting your will at risk.
  9. Sign and get the signature of two witnesses who are not beneficiaries of your will. Each state has its own laws dictating who has to sign a will. While some states require only one witness and others allow beneficiaries to sign it, some laws are more strict. Getting signatures from two witnesses who do not stand to benefit from your will is the safest way to ensure you meet the legal standards for your will.
  10. Keep your will in a safe place. This isn’t something that you write and then forget about. Put your will in a secure location, such as a safe or online storage, that can be accessed by your loved ones after you die. It also needs to be easily accessible — you’ll want to come back to this regularly to make sure everything is up to date.

Wills, trusts and living wills: What’s the difference?

A will goes into effect when you pass away and lists how you want your property distributed. A living will goes into effect if you’re incapaciated and can’t make requests. Usually a living will is used to decide what kind of medical treatment you will receive in the event of an accident. For example, you can request that you will not be put on life support if you go into a coma.

A trust is an important piece of estate planning that goes into effect as soon as it’s created. While a will is used to determine where assets go after death, a trust can be used to distribute assets before or after death.

DIY will vs. using an attorney

You do not have to use an attorney to write your will, but working with one may be better in some situations.

There are many resources online, including templates and hands-on applications that can help walk you through the process of creating your own will. These will be pretty straightforward, meaning they’re applicable to most cases but won’t be personalized to each individual situation. If you have a straightforward financial situation, creating your own will may be a more affordable method. If your situation is more complicated, such as if you have multiple investments in different locations or many beneficiaries, a lawyer may be a better idea. A lawyer can help lower everyone’s tax liabilities and ensure that everything works the way you want it to.

If you choose to write your own will, remember to get the document signed by two witnesses to ensure it will be considered legally binding. You are not required to get your will notarized, but some experts recommend it for an additional layer of authenticity, which can help shorten the probate process after your passing.

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Bottom line

Having a will in place is a critical part of estate and end-of-life planning, especially for those with children or significant assets. You don’t want to add bickering over who gets what to the burden of a grieving family. Also, consider setting up a durable power of attorney to execute your end-of-life wishes in the event you are unable to act on your own behalf before your passing.

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Profile picture of Jessica Render
by Jessica Render ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs research team, Jessica Render is dedicated to providing well-researched, valuable content designed to help consumers make informed purchase decisions they can feel confident making. She holds a degree in journalism from Oral Roberts University.