If you'd like to put together a simple will, you can probably do it yourself. Online wills and software can guide you through the process easily and accurately.
Basic Wills—Do You Need a Lawyer?
Most people can make a basic will without a lawyer. Will laws are not complicated and there are very few legal requirements:
- Wills must be completely type written. Some states allow handwritten wills, but these should only be used when you don't have time to make an official will.
- The document must be witnessed by at least two people.
- You must be 18 to make will. Some states allow younger people to make wills in some circumstances—for example, if you are married or in the military.
- You must be of sound mind to make a will. Most people easily meet this requirement.
A will document itself can (and should) be in plain-English so that the meaning is clear to you and to anyone who reads it—no legalese required. You can make a will yourself with good self-help resources. Of course, if you have a complicated situation or if you have legal questions see a lawyer for help.
What You Can Do With a Will
A basic will is a key document for almost any estate plan. You can use a will to:
- decide who will get your property,
- name an executor, and
- name guardians for your young children and their property.
You can also use a will to forgive debts, name new owners for your pets, and decide how your debts and taxes should be paid. Even if you use a living trust to distribute most of your property and avoid probate, it still makes sense to make a basic will to name guardians for your young children and take care of any property that does not end up in the trust.
If you do not make a will or (other plan, like a living trust) that determines where your property will go when you die, then your property will be distributed according to your state's "intestacy" laws. Generally, intestacy laws give your property to your closest relatives—or at least, who the state considers to be your closest relatives—usually your spouse, children, parents, or siblings. The best way to avoid having the state decide who will get your property is to make a basic will.
Does everyone need a will? There is small category of people who may not need a will. For example, you may not need a will if you:
- don't have young children
- don't have a lot of property, and
- don't care if your state's intestacy laws decide who gets your property.
If all of these things are true for you, then you are one of the few people who do not need to make a basic will.
Who Should Write Their Own Will?
You can probably write a will yourself using quality self-help resources from books, software, or online programs. A good self-help tool will clearly explain how wills work, how to make one, how to make it legal, and when to consult a lawyer for help.
Most people can write a will using these tools. However, those with more complicated circumstances should consider seeking the guidance of a lawyer instead. If any of the following apply to you, find an estate planning attorney to help.
- You expect to owe estate taxes.
- You want to leave property to someone with special needs.
- You're worried about family members challenging your will, or other family conflict over your property after you die.
- You want to control what happens to your property when you die, rather than giving it outright to your loved ones. (For example, you want to give away your property in portions, over time.)
- You own a family business.
How to Write a Will Yourself
If you decide to create your own will, find a will-making tool that uses plain-English—both in the instructions and in the document itself. You should understand exactly what you are doing and what the will says. There is no need for legalese in a will.
What Will-Writing Software or Online Will Is Right for Me?
If your wishes are simple—for example, you want all your property to go to your spouse and you have no young children, then you may not need to do much to prepare to make your will. However, if you're like most people and have a somewhat more complicated situation, you may need to gather some information before you make your will. Here is a list of what you might need:
- Your full legal name. This should be your official name that you use for employment, voting, banking, etc.
- Your spouse's full legal name.
- Your children's full legal names and birthdates.
- Names of personal guardians. Names of people to care for your young children if you cannot.
- Pets caretakers. The names and descriptions of your pets and the caretakers who will care of them if you cannot.
- Your property. A rough inventory of what you own (if you plan to leave everything to one or a few people, you won't' need this).
- Beneficiary names. The names of those to whom you want to leave your property
- Alternate beneficiaries names. The names of those to whom you will leave your property if your first-choice beneficiaries die before you do
- Property guardian names. Names of people to manage your young children's property if you cannot.
- Custodian or trustee names. Names of people to manage property you leave to young beneficiaries
- Debts to forgive. If you want to forgive debts owed to you, then the name of the person who owes you money, when the debt was incurred, and the amount of the debt you want to forgive
- Accounts to pay debts and taxes. If you want any debts or taxes paid from specific bank accounts, then the numbers of those accounts.
- Executor names. The names of people who will wrap up your estate, including alternates.
If you use a will form—like one downloaded off the internet or from a book—you will need to fill in your personal information and choose which clauses you want to include. When using a fill-in-the-blank form, make sure you have a good self-help tool that clearly explains what to do. If you use software or an online program, you won't have to do as much work because the program will assemble the document for you. However, you should still make sure that you truly understand and agree with your final document.
To make your will legal, you and two witnesses will sign it. Notarization is not required, however, in many states you can attach "self-proving affidavit" that must be notarized. The affidavit helps your executor get your will admitted to probate after you die, but it is not required. A good will-making tool will provide this affidavit to you and explain what to do with it.
When to See a Lawyer
Although many people will be able to make a basic will without a lawyer, some circumstances require professional legal advice:
- Conditions. If you want to put conditions on your gifts, see a lawyer. A condition is any restriction that limits the beneficiary's ownership of a gift. For example, you want to give your house to your wife, but after she dies, you want it to go to your sister. Or, you want to leave your daughter a large cash gift, but you only want her to have it if she stays sober. It may be possible to do these things, but it can be legally tricky, so you should get help from an attorney.
- Capacity. If you are not confident that you are "of sound mind," see a lawyer. If you understand what you own and what it means to give it away in your will, you are probably of sound mind. But if you have any concerns about this, or if anyone else does, get an attorney's help to establish that you do indeed know what you're doing.
- Contests. If you think that anyone may contest or fight your will, see a lawyer. A good estate planning lawyer can put additional safeguards into your will to make sure that no one tries to undermine your will after you are gone.
- Estate tax. If your property is worth millions of dollars, see a lawyer to help avoid estate tax. This is not an issue for the vast majority of people because you must be quite rich to pay estate tax. In 2023, no federal estate tax is due unless the estate is worth more than $12.92 million. Several states also have state estate taxes, and those limits are generally much lower—some as low as $1 million. Do a little research to find out if your estate might be subject to estate tax. If it is, see an estate planning attorney or tax professional for help.
If you do decide to see a lawyer for advice, go prepared so that you can ask specific questions and so that you don't pay the lawyer to teach you about estate planning. Take some time to find an attorney who is competent, listens to your concerns, and works with you to build your estate plan.