scorecardHow to make a will without a lawyer, and be sure your money goes where you want
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How to make a will without a lawyer, and be sure your money goes where you want

How to make a will without a lawyer, and be sure your money goes where you want
Finance5 min read

  • You don't need a lawyer to create a will if you have a straightforward financial situation.
  • A will outlines how you would like your assets distributed after your death and names a guardian for any minor children.
  • You don't need to say who will receive proceeds from life insurance or retirement accounts in your will, as those require a named beneficiary within the account.
  • You can use online templates or software to write a will yourself. In order to legalize the will, it needs to be signed and dated by you and at least two other witnesses.
  • Fabric can help you create a legally binding will online in minutes - for free »

A lot of people avoid estate planning because, well, it's just not very fun to think about.

But if you have assets you'd like to leave to your kids, spouse, or other relatives - or minor children that will need a guardian - the absence of a will can complicate things.

The good news is that unless you plan to disinherit a spouse or child, or you have a large estate involving trusts, you probably don't need to meet with a lawyer to create a will. If your financials are straightforward and you don't want an adviser's help deciding who will inherit your assets, you can find a template or use online software to draft a perfectly legitimate will.

To be recognized as valid, a will must be clear and unambiguous, signed and dated by the will-maker, and signed by at least two witnesses. You must also name an executor, who is responsible for carrying out the instructions outlined in your will.

Some states have their own unique rules for what must be included in a will, so be sure to check up on yours before writing. If you use a software or online service, guidelines will likely be provided for you.

Here are the basics:

How to make a will without a lawyer

1. Find an online template or service

While about half of the US states recognize handwritten, or holographic, wills as valid, it's always best to type out a formal will on a computer.

There are many online templates to choose from that can help guide you in writing your will. You can also use an online service like Fabric or LegalZoom to walk you through the process.

Note that even if you and your spouse plan to have nearly identical wills, you need to create separate documents for each person.

2. Make a list of your assets

In order to leave property to your heirs, you need to know what you have. Make a list of all your significant assets, including real estate and land, jewelry, artwork, cars, and bank accounts that don't name a beneficiary.

If you own real estate with another person, you may not need to name a beneficiary as your share of the property will automatically pass to the joint owner or your spouse at your death (check your state's rules to be sure).

You don't need to write out who is going to receive life insurance proceeds and retirement accounts in your will, as those require beneficiaries to be named within the account. Additionally, if you have a bank account with a transfer-on-death (TOD) provision or stocks and bonds with a payable-on-death (POD) provision, you're able to name the beneficiaries directly in those accounts.

3. Be specific about who gets what

Be as clear as possible about who should receive which assets and specific in describing the assets. Use full names and also consider including a secondary beneficiary in the event you outlive the first. For example, instead of writing "my home goes to my son," write down the full address and his full, legal name.

4. If you have minor children, choose a guardian

If you have minor children, you should list out their full names and birthdates in your will. Then name the person who will assume legal responsibility for each of them in the event of both your and their other parent's death.

Again, it's wise to choose an alternate guardian in case you outlive your first choice and don't update your will.

5. Give instructions for your pet

While it's illegal in many states to name your pet as a beneficiary, you'll probably want to make a plan for their care after your death. You can name a guardian of sorts for your pet and leave money to that person to cover future costs.

6. Choose an executor

Naming an executor for your will is crucial. This is the person who will distribute the property, pay any remaining bills and debts, and handle probate (transferring the titling of assets). You can name more than one person as an executor.

7. Name a 'residuary beneficiary'

After the executor is finished distributing the assets and paying bills, debts, and taxes, the "residuary beneficiary" will receive what's left over in your estate, if anything. This person - or charity - can be a beneficiary who already received a piece of property; it does not need to be someone new.

8. List your funeral preferences

Many estate planning experts recommend creating an all-together separate document that lists your funeral preferences and other last wishes, such as whether you'd like to be cremated or buried. But you can also include this information in your will if you'd like.

9. Print the will and get it signed

Even if your will is created using an online service, you need to print out a copy and sign it yourself and ask two witnesses over age 18 to sign it. In some states, these witnesses cannot also be your beneficiaries.

10. Keep it in a safe place

Keep the will in a safe place in your home or with a trusted relative. Make sure a beneficiary or the executor knows the location of the will and how to access it.

Fabric can walk you through creating a will in about five minutes - for free. Learn more »

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