If you search online for estate-planning advice, you will likely come across templates for drafting your own will. In most cases, do-it-yourself options include a basic template that can be adapted to your personal circumstances.
These templates can be appealing. After all, with attorney fees and the hassle of having to find a good lawyer, you may think it's best to draft your will yourself.
Do you really need a lawyer to write your will for you? The answer isn't a simple yes or no.
Is an Attorney Necessary?
Wills are legal documents and they can be simple or complex, depending on your specific needs.
You definitely can draft your own will. While legal documents are usually best drafted by an attorney, there's usually no legal requirement to retain a lawyer. That's one reason why so many legal templates are available online.
So the real question is not can you draft your own will, but should you? And as with many legal issues, the answer is: It depends.
When to Contact an Attorney
The simpler your situation, the fewer issues you'll encounter if you decide to draft your own will. But the flip side of this also applies: Add in more complex factors, and you're better off retaining an estate-planning attorney. Among the things you should consider are:
- The size of your estate. The more assets you have, the less simple your will becomes. According to property attorney Brian Pendergraft, a young professional without children is the type of individual who would likely run into the fewest issues when drafting their own will. But all that changes when, for example, you start making a bigger salary. “Once you level up and start earning the big bucks, there can be significant tax consequences to the estate-planning decisions you make," Pendergraft says. The larger your estate—that is, the more assets and money you have—the more issues you may run into if you draft your own will.
- Your children. If you have children, the estate-planning stakes are significantly raised. “You want to ensure that there is a proper plan in place to provide for them," Pendergraft says. He suggests that in this situation, you should definitely consider consulting with an estate-planning attorney.
- Multiple beneficiaries. The fewer people who will inherit your assets, the simpler your will can be. "A person with one individual heir—for example, someone who has a spouse but no children, or who has a child but no spouse—may not run into issues with drafting their own will," says attorney Maria M. Barlow. “If you have more than one heir and you want to leave a different percentage of your assets to each person, you need to know any legal requirements that might apply." She also advises that an attorney can help ensure that your will stands up in court if contested.
Finding an Estate-Planning Attorney
It's important to evaluate your personal and financial situation to properly assess whether drafting your will is something you can do yourself, or if it would be prudent to retain an attorney. Barlow points out that it's important to know your rights, and the rights of your heirs. “If you do decide to draft your own will, it would be a waste of your time and costly to your heirs if the will you write up doesn't comply with statutory requirements," she says.
If you've assessed your situation and decided that you (and your heirs) would be better off if you sought the advice of an attorney, how should you go about finding one with experience in estate planning?
Pendergraft notes that it can be difficult to objectively compare and contrast estate-planning attorneys. “I would recommend checking their reviews on, for example, Google or Facebook to see what people who have hired them are saying about them," he suggests.
Barlow agrees. “Do your homework," she advises. “Read reviews; ask questions. Complete a consultation, and make sure the attorney you select knows you and your estate, and is a good fit for your needs."
And while fees will likely be at the top of your list of questions, Pendergraft suggests you also check how an attorney will charge you. “We all charge very differently," he says, so this may be an important factor in your selection process.
As Barlow notes: “If you care enough to prepare a will, you clearly have assets to protect. Spend the money to have it prepared correctly. If a will is ill-prepared, it will likely cost your family even more money and heartache at a time when they are already grieving the loss of a loved one."
The simpler your estate-planning needs, the fewer issues you'll face drafting your will yourself. But if your estate-planning needs are more complex, it might be time to hire an experienced estate-planning attorney to help. In the long run, as Barlow points out, an attorney-drafted will may very well save your heirs both money and heartache.