If you're in the market for an estate plan that will help you sleep well at night, you might be surprised to learn that you don't need a lawyer. It's legal to write your own will, and given how much it costs to draft a will with a lawyer, a do-it-yourself approach might be a cost-saving choice.
But you need to draft a will that's legal in your state and ensure it can stand up to scrutiny. Here's how to get started.
Who should write their own will?
You might consider drafting a will on your own if you have an average amount of assets, your plans for leaving your property are not unusual, and you're not expecting a challenge, says attorney Dennis Sandoval of Sandoval Legacy Group in Riverside, Calif. In this kind of simple will situation, you may be able to draft a will on your own successfully.
That was true for Brian Douglas, an illustrator and designer in Toronto, who drafted a will with the help of an online will-preparation company.
"For someone like myself whose situation is not complex, I didn't want to spend a lot of money, and I also really liked the convenience of it," says Douglas, whose children are grown.
In higher-stakes cases, you may want to hire someone through an attorney network or another channel. Some lawyers would strongly advise you never to draft your own will if you don't thoroughly understand what could be at risk.
"I think it is a bad idea," says Danielle Humphrey of Hurley Elder Care Law in Atlanta. "Because they don't know what they don't know."
How to write your own will
If you choose to write your own will, you'll need to know:
- How you want your property divided
- Whom you want to put in charge of that
- Whom you would assign to care for any children under 18
- Your state's requirements for a valid will
The first three items are your call. The person you put in charge of implementing your will—called an executor—should be a person you trust.
However, state requirements may be strictly applied, especially if there's a challenge to the will. Those requirements vary, but generally, your will must be in writing; you must be at least 18 and mentally competent; and you must sign it in front of two to three (depending on the state) adult witnesses who do not stand to inherit anything. Those witnesses must also sign.
Sandoval suggests that, if you want to draft your own will, you start with a statutory will. This very simple form allows you to fill in your name and the names of your heirs, the people who will execute your wishes after your death, and any guardians needed for your minor children. However, only California, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin offer statutory wills, so many Americans won't have this option.
If you don't, you may still live in one of the 26 states that permit holographic wills. "Holographic" here means "handwritten," Sandoval says handwriting it is advantageous because the legal standard for validating a handwritten will is a little more relaxed, at least in California. This may help if you miss a detail. But he cautions that you must still sign it and date it, and he recommends using witnesses even if your state doesn't require them for holographic wills.
"[One] common mistake people make if they handwrite a will is they may sign it, but they forget to date it," says Sandoval, a certified elder-law attorney. "If you don't date it, how will I know if this is your most recent will?"
How to amend your will without an attorney
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 own 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.
Getting help with your will
If you're nervous about your ability to write a successful will, you have options in between going it alone and a full-service package from an attorney. One is to write your will online with optional consultation with an attorney.
Douglas says the service he used helped by bringing up issues he might not have considered on his own.
"There were a few things it brought up, such as 'If you have pets, do you have people who can take care of the pets in case something happens to you?'" he says. "Things I wouldn't have thought of."
Software can also guide you through the process, Sandoval notes. This process is similar to writing an online will, although you can complete it offline.
You may also be able to hire some help. Some states offer legal document preparers who can handle this work, and some attorneys offer to read a self-drafted will at a discount.
However you write your will, Douglas recommends getting it done.
"I'm 55, so I figure someone my age should definitely be thinking about a will if they haven't already. But I think everybody, including younger people, need to at least think about it," he says. "For people in my situation where it's not too complicated, I would highly recommend doing it online."