How to Make a Will Without a Lawyer. Many people think making a will is a complicated process that requires the help of an attorney. However, if you have a simple estate plan, you can successfully write your own will without a lawyer.
How to Make a Will Without a Lawyer
Even simple wills drafted by a lawyer can cost hundreds of dollars. Do-it-yourself projects will often cost $100 or less, depending on how you make them, and the process might be simpler than you think.
What is a Will?
A will, also known as a last will, is a legal document that explains what happens to a person’s estate after they die. “Estate” refers to anything a person owns at the time of death. A will explains what happens to financial accounts, any type of property, and dependents. Wills are legally binding, but anyone can contest them (meaning challenge their validity) through the state court system.
Passing away without a will is known as dying “intestate” (in contrast, “testate” describes someone who has passed away with a will). When someone dies intestate, their estate goes through the probate process—the process of distributing an estate with or without a will—according to state laws.
Legal Requirement to Make a Will
Creating a valid will requires you to meet these general legal conditions: (Requirements may vary slightly from state to state.)
Age and Mental Capacity
A testator must be at least 18 years old and of sound mind. In some states, you can make a will if you are legally emancipated or underage when you start military service. “Sound mind” indicates you are aware of the will’s content and its consequences.
If you make a list of your property and the individuals or institutions you want the property to go to when you die, a court may consider it a valid will even if you didn’t know you were creating one. The court may find “testamentary intent,” the intent to say how property will be distributed when you die. As long as the intent is clear, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve labelled it a last will—a court will likely consider it a valid will.
You must sign the will. A video, text message, or other communication expressing your willingness to sign is not sufficient. Signatures include an “X” (if you are physically unable to sign) and verbally instructing another person to sign for you at the time you finalise the will. Please note that the individual signing the will on your behalf cannot serve as a witness to your will.
States require two or three witnesses to a will. This requirement may also include a witness affidavit acknowledged by a notary public. Witnesses cannot be beneficiaries of your estate.
Steps to Take When Writing a Will Without a Lawyer
Once you decide to make your will, follow these steps:
Write a title.
It’s easy to overlook such a simple detail, but it needs to be clear to anyone who picks up this document that it’s your last will. Make sure you include your full legal name somewhere near the beginning of your will. If you have made previous versions of your will, be sure to also mention that your most current document invalidates any previous ones. Include any other names you’ve used.
Name the Executor of Your Will
You will need to choose someone to be in charge of your will and estate when you pass away. This person is called an executor. This can be a trusted family member, a close friend, or a professional, such as a lawyer or accountant. They will need to agree to take on this responsibility before you can designate them.
Name the Guardian for any minors.
If you have children under the age of 18, this may be one of the most important things you do in your will. A legal guardian is someone who has the legal authority and responsibility to care for your children if something happens to you. In your will, you can name a trustworthy person you want to look after your children if you were to pass away. It’s a good idea to name an alternate guardian in case your first choice is unable to fulfil their duties.
Organise and Inventory assets.
Assets are any possessions belonging to you or that are titled in your name. Personal belongings, pets, property, and cash are all considered assets. Take the time to clearly describe each asset so that when the executor transfers the asset to its named beneficiary, there is no question about its identity. Be sure to check with your state about which assets you cannot include. Trusts or investment accounts, for example, are often not considered part of your simple assets and pass directly to the beneficiaries you have named on those accounts.
When your will goes into probate, your executor sends notices to your creditors so they can file a claim against your estate. Make this job easier by including a list of current mortgages, car loans, personal loans, credit cards, tax debts, and other debts.
Name the beneficiaries.
Once you have a list of your assets, you can begin to name beneficiaries who will inherit them. This is a key part of your will, no matter how you’ve chosen to make it. Beneficiaries outlined in your will are the people or organisations you choose to pass your property and belongings to when you pass away. Note that a beneficiary does not have to accept a gift in your will; they can disclaim it.
Here are the reasons why you would name beneficiaries in your will:
Leaving Specific Gifts: identifiable pieces of property or an amount of money gifted to a person or organisation upon your passing Specific gifts can range from real estate to cars to jewellery to recipe books to cryptocurrency. These gifts are not included in your residual estate.
Leaving Charitable Donations: also known as legacy gifts, these can be made in two ways, leaving a specific piece of property, a cash amount, or a percentage of your residual estate.
Splitting up Your Residual Estate: After any debts are paid, specific gifts and charitable donations are made, and the remainder of your estate is distributed. This often forms the largest financial component of your estate, so it’s important to think carefully about the beneficiary or beneficiaries you want to receive a percentage of your residual estate.
Write Your Residuary Clause
A residuary clause covers everything not left to a specific beneficiary that was either not adequately described or was forgotten when you wrote the assets section of the will. You can choose to leave these “remainders” to a beneficiary or leave them to your executor to handle. Don’t overlook the importance of this clause; it’s unlikely you’ll remember everything you own, especially if this is your first pass at a will. Having a residuary clause is a decent enough fail-safe to let you sleep at night.
Sign Your Will with Witnesses.
At least three signatures are required for a valid will. Your and the two witnesses’ full names. You should print your name, above or beside the signature, and date it. The witnesses must see you sign the will. Most states require witnesses to be “disinterested,” meaning they don’t stand to inherit anything from you.
It’s important to have copies of your will to store with the original, which you should keep in a secure place. It may even be helpful to have a written list of all the documents stored together, so anyone who retrieves them will know if something is missing. Keep the original in a safe place, like a safe deposit box or fireproof file cabinet in your home office. Make copies and give them to your executor and beneficiaries. Let your executor know where you keep any keys to file cabinets or safe deposit boxes.
Store Your Will somewhere safe.
You should store your will in a safe place with other important financial papers, perhaps as part of an “in case of death” binder. One can also store it in a safe deposit box at your bank, your office, or your library at home. You may also be able to file your will with the Register of Wills in the state where you live. The person you choose as the executor or personal representative should be told where your will is kept. If you keep a copy on file with the Register of Wills office, you will likely need to pay a small one-time fee.
Update it when necessary.
You should update your will any time you go through life changes, such as marriage, divorce, the birth or adoption of a child, or the purchase of a home or car. Some attorneys suggest revisiting your will every five years to make sure it’s up-to-date.
Depending on the service you use, your online will-creation software may hold your will on a platform you can revisit and change easily. To update your will, you can either add a document to your will specifying the change to be made (this document is called a “codicil”) or write a new will that states your old will is no longer valid.
Benefits of Having a Will – How to write a will without Lawyer
There are many advantages associated with creating a last will. Some of the biggest benefits include:
You can Specify how Your Property Should be Distributed
If you do not provide instructions for what happens to your assets, intestate state laws will dictate how your money is to be distributed.
You can Name a Personal Representative
This puts you in charge of who is responsible for managing and distributing your estate after you die. If you don’t name a personal representative or executor, the court may have to appoint a guardian for your estate, who may not be the person you’d have chosen.
You can Choose a Guardian for Your Minor Children
You’ll be able to ensure you control who raises your children, so you can select someone who shares your values. And you won’t risk your kids becoming the subject of a custody battle or having the court appoint their caregiver.
You can give Money to Charity
If there are causes you believe in, you can choose to support them after your death.
Lower the Potential Family Disputes
If you have complicated family dynamics, there is a good reason to have a will. When you die without a will, your family will have to guess what your final wishes were. And chances are, they won’t always agree. This ambiguity can create friction, and even fights, which sometimes last a lifetime. Creating a will solves the problem by eliminating the guesswork.
Provide Funeral Instructions.
You may not want to think about your funeral. But if you do think about it now, and leave instructions with your will, you can lessen the burden on your loved ones after you pass. While these instructions aren’t legally binding, they can give your executors and loved ones some guidance on your wishes.
When you include instructions, you can name a funeral executor to manage the process, give suggestions for the service and location, make requests for your final resting place, and more.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions.
How to Amend Your Will Without a Lawyer
Children get older, relationships end, and property switches hands. If you’ve had changes like this in your life that affect your will, you need to know how to write a “codicil,” an addition to the will that adds to, revokes, or explains your choices. Writing your codicil is as easy as writing your will on your own. You typically need to sign it, date it, and have two or more witnesses sign it, too.
What are some Disadvantages to Writing Your Own Will?
The biggest disadvantage of writing your own will is that you will not have professional legal advice from a trained expert. Attorneys know the state laws for writing a will, and they can advise you on how to ensure your will is legally valid and less likely to be contested by your heirs. An attorney can also help you make sure your will is comprehensive enough to include everything necessary to provide full protection for your loved ones.
Without an attorney, it’s possible your will won’t be valid, that your heirs will challenge it, or that you will miss clauses you need, such as provisions detailing who should manage the assets left to minors.