How to Write a Last Will and Testament

A will is a legal document that explains how you want your assets to be handled after you die. Even for people without much money, writing a simple will can offer an easy way to streamline the distribution of money, property, and keepsakes. By writing a will, you ensure that your relatives don’t miss any important documents, such as life insurance policies and savings accounts, during their time of grief. In addition, you leaving your affairs in order reduces the likelihood that friends and family members will argue over sentimental items. 

Be forewarned, the legal requirements for Last Will and Testaments vary by country and even by region. In this article, we’ll discuss the process for writing a will in the United States.

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Research Legal Requirements in Your State

Before you begin writing your will, research the legal guidelines for your state. Seemingly small mistakes may invalidate your will. In Vermont, a will must be signed by three witnesses (instead of two) in order to be valid. In Utah, handwritten wills must be written entirely in the deceased person’s (testator’s) own handwriting. Don’t use a generic template to write your will; instead, work from a custom template based on the current legal requirements in the state where you reside. If you move to a new state, be sure to review your will to ensure that it’s valid in your new state of residence. 

Include Necessary Language

“Sound mind,” “free will,” and “revoking all previous wills.” These phrases mean something to us in everyday English, but they also have very specific legal definitions. Christine Funk, J.D., a contributor to Legal Zoom, explains, “Certain words have certain meanings with regard to the law. This is why the language of your Last Will and Testament is of critical importance.” When you draft estate planning documents, you should be sure to use an online will writing tool or an attorney. If you draft the language in your will from scratch, you may find that you’ve created a document that doesn’t hold up in court. 

Select an Executor

When you create your will, you need to select an executor or personal representative. You can choose a friend or family member, or you can hire a financial planner or lawyer to oversee the probate process. Professionals typically charge between two and four percent of the value of the estate. It’s customary to pay a friend or family member, as well, because executing a will requires a lot of time and energy. Keep in mind, some states have specific limitations on who you may choose as an executor. 

Select Beneficiaries

When you think of writing a will, this is probably the part that you imagine. Selecting beneficiaries involves choosing who will receive different items, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, real estate, sentimental belongings, and so on. Many experts recommend asking loved ones about any preferences they have. For example, if an heir feels nostalgia for a particular item, you might decide to give it to him or her in lieu of another asset. You may also decide to give assets to charities and nonprofits. It’s helpful to be as specific as possible about how you want your assets distributed, especially since heirs do not always behave generously towards one another. 

Appoint Guardians for Children

If you have minor children, be sure to provide instructions for their guardianship. Most experts recommend having a few contingency plans, ranked in order of preference. Even if you have a friend or relative who has agreed to your primary plan, circumstances could change between the time you write your will and the time of your death. For that reason, you should be as explicit as possible about your instructions in the event that the primary guardian dies, gets divorced, refuses the guardianship, or relocates. Some people also include guidelines in a will about how to care for other dependents or pets. 

Get Legal Advice for a Large Estate

Most experts agree: the larger the estate, the more important it is to secure legal advice. According to Geoff Williams, a contributor for U.S. News, “While the price will depend on the intricacy of your financial situation, you can expect to pay a few thousand dollars to work with a reputable estate attorney to ensure your assets are protected.” In general, heirs are more likely to dispute a will that covers significant assets. That has nothing to do with the temperament of the person’s friends and offspring; instead, it has to do with the expense of legal fees, which can dwarf smaller inheritances. 

Use an Online Tool

For a small estate, we recommend using online software to draft your will. Here are a few examples of popular tools:

Don’t try to draft your will on your own. Using a tool or a legal advisor can help your heirs avoid steep legal fees and taxes. 

Get Witness Signatures

Get the total number of witness signatures required in your state. In general, most experts recommend including a “self-proving” affidavit with your will. This is a sworn statement, including witness signatures. Remember that a witness to a Last Will and Testament generally cannot be a beneficiary of that will. 

Understanding Vocabulary

Sometimes the language involved in estate planning can be confusing. For that reason, we’ve provided definitions for a few key terms. 

A Living Will vs. a Living Trust

A living will describes your instructions for healthcare in the event if you become incapacitated. This document contains information about your preferences in regards to life support, end of life care, etc. 

A living trust refers to a plan to distribute your assets through a trust administered by a trustee. Once a living trust is created, your assets can be transferred into the trust, then distributed. This is a way for you to transfer assets outside of probate, which can save on taxes and probate costs. A trust also ensures that your trustee can access your resources if you become incapacitated and need money for your own care. 

Real Property vs. Other Assets

Real property describes real estate, land, buildings, properties, trees, fences, usage rights, etc. In the probate process, real property can be particularly time consuming to distribute to beneficiaries. For this reason, people sometimes choose to distribute real property through a living trust rather than a Last Will and Testament. 

A Codicil vs. a Personal Letter

Both a codicil and a personal letter can be attached to a Last Will and Testament. A codicil usually modifies or revokes the language within the original will. You can think of a codicil as an amendment to the original document. 

In contrast, a personal letter gets attached to a will to explain the testator’s decision-making or otherwise share a message with the beneficiaries of the will. A personal letter may include a statement of values, instructions for a digital legacy, final requests, and other words of advice.

Keeping Your Will Safe

The safest place to keep your will is with a law firm. Alternatively, your executor can store a sealed copy of your will in a safe place, such as a safety deposit box or a fireproof safe. In some states, you can file your own will with the court or the county clerk. The worst place to keep your will is in household storage with your regular files, especially when you do not have another copy elsewhere. If your house burns down, no one will be able to find your will. Also, if it’s too easy to find, your Last Will and Testament could be destroyed or revised by an unscrupulous person after your death. 

By keeping your will safe and up-to-date, you’ll protect your heirs from unnecessary expenses, fraud, and confusion.