No one likes to think about their own death, but preparing end-of-life documents, such as a last will and testament, can give you great peace of mind now, knowing your wishes will be followed when you're gone.
Still, getting together a last will can seem like a daunting task, and maybe you aren't exactly sure how to write a will, the most basic of estate planning documents you should have.
The good news is that writing a will doesn't have to be complicated or even take a long time. Although in the past, most people consulted a lawyer to make a will, these days, making wills online has never been easier.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty of how to make a will, though, let's talk a bit more about why you should have one and what you should be thinking about as you prepare this all-important document.
Do I need a will?
A will is a legal document that details what you want to be done with your possessions after your death and, to put it simply: Yes, you need a will.
Even if you think you don't have many assets or that your estate will automatically go where you want upon your death through your state's intestacy laws (which kick in when someone dies without a will), making a will can assure that your exact preferences will be followed after your death.
You'll also be doing your loved ones a favor, as they won't have to guess what you might have wanted.
Within your will, as the testator, you will name an executor to be in charge of distributing your estate according to your instructions. You also may name a guardian for any minor children or other dependents. Without either of these provisions in a will, a judge would be the one to decide who handles your estate and, even more concerning, who cares for your children.
If you have beloved pets, your will also is an excellent place to provide for their care after your death.
A will does not take effect until your death, but afterward, it becomes part of the public record as it goes through probate, the court-supervised process of closing out a deceased person's estate.
1. Gather your information
As you prepare to make your own will, you should consider the following:
- Executor. The person you want to be in charge of distributing your estate; the executor should, of course, be someone you trust
- Assets. All real property (real estate) and personal property (vehicles, bank accounts, family heirlooms, etc.)
- Debts and taxes. Any amounts your estate may need to payout
- Beneficiaries. The people you want to receive your assets, including their full names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers
- Guardian. This is the person you choose to take care of your children and their property in the event of the deaths of both parents, as well as an alternative choice should that person be unable to take on the responsibility
- Pet care. Who you want to take care of your pet, as well as any funds you would like to set aside for your pet's care
2. Write the will
At this point, you may be wondering whether you need a lawyer to write a will.
No, you don't, and, in fact, online wills have become increasingly popular in recent years. Online wills are often quick and easy to create and are also legally valid so long as they are executed according to your state's laws.
Other options for writing your own will include using will templates generated by will software or fill-in-the-blank forms.
No matter which method you choose, you will be well prepared because you have already considered many of the issues you will need to address while gathering the information during Step 1.
3. Make sure the will is legal
Because laws concerning wills vary by state, it is important that you know what your state requires in order to make a will valid. If you use LegalZoom's Last Will and Testament, you can be sure that LegalZoom's team of experienced attorneys has designed all last wills to meet the specific laws and requirements of each U.S. state.
Generally, though, for most states, to execute a valid will, you need to be of sound mind and over the age of 18; sign the will; and, often, have witnesses sign it as well. These witnesses should also provide their full names and addresses in case they need to be contacted in the future regarding the will.
4. Copy and Store Your Will
Once you have your completed, executed will, you should make a copy and store both the original and copy in a safe place such as a fireproof lockbox or filing cabinet. You should also let your loved ones know where the documents are and how to find them after your death to make probating the will easier.
5. Keep your will up to date
Remember that your will can be changed and updated at any time, so you should plan to revisit it at least yearly to make sure it still reflects your wishes. Any time there is a change in your family situation—such as a divorce or the birth of a grandchild—is a good time to review your will.
Knowing how to make a will is half the battle, right? Now all you need to do is follow through. So, get to it!