Here's How to Make Your Own Free or Low-Cost Will
Though more than a few experts discourage creating a document as important as a will on your own, it can be done, especially if you're on a tight budget. A variety of websites have sprung up with the sole purpose of helping people to create wills independently at a fraction of the cost you might pay an attorney who specializes in estate planning.
None of which is to say that you should embark on such a task without first understanding the dos and don'ts. Creating a will that properly protects your family and provides for them adequately can be a complex undertaking—one that should be approached with knowledge, wisdom, and a bit of research.
Here are tips from estate planning experts on how best to find a low-cost option that suits your family's needs, as well as how to create the all-important document without any major errors or oversights.
Sorting through the low-cost options
There are many online services available to help you create a low-cost will. A simple Google search turns up various websites focused on this task. An AARP report says the cost for making a will using an online platform typically ranges from $20 to $100 or more. But how should you decide which website is best for your family and its unique circumstances?
"I recommend that you review each digital offering carefully," Mary Kate D'Souza, co-founder and chief legal officer for gentreo a boutique online estate planning software solution, tells Parents. "Certainly, there are large self-help legal resources, but for estate planning issues, I would suggest a specialty resource that only focuses on estate planning. If you were going to consult an actual attorney about your estate plan, you would likely want to talk to someone who specializes in estate planning, not a general practitioner."
In addition to finding a website that specializes in wills or estate planning, you should also consider some of the following questions when making a selection amongst free or low-cost will services, says Patrick Hicks, head of legal for Trust & Will.
- Does the service allow you to make updates online as your needs change?
- Was it created by a certified estate planning attorney?
- Is the document legally valid in your state? Make sure the will template is specific for your state.
- Is there customer support or someone who can help you answer questions?
- Does the site or provider offer education and content demonstrating their knowledge of estate planning issues (versus just selling single copies of all types of legal forms)?
"The key is to make sure the will is valid. Printing off a free form online might save you $100 now, but might leave you with a document that is invalid or defective or that fails to properly handle all of the issues you need to handle," Hicks tells Parents.
The DIY will: How to write a will yourself
If you choose to create a will entirely on your own for free, you can either type the will on a computer (leaving spaces for all signatures to be handwritten) or you can handwrite your will, says Emily Cisek, co-founder and CEO of The Postage, a digital estate planning service.
"Handwritten wills are recognized in nearly half of the states, including Texas, California, and New Jersey," Cisek tells Parents. In most states, handwritten will are valid as long as they are:
- Handwritten by the testator
- Define the document's intent to serve as the last will and testament
- Signed and dated
Those who choose to type their own will must have it signed by the minimum number of required witnesses in your state. "If you're writing a handwritten will in a state where they are recognized, then there is no requirement to have your will witnessed," adds Cisek.
"Typing or handwriting your will may be a viable choice for those who know and understand the probate laws of their state," continues Cisek. "Minor mistakes can cause the will to be invalid or contested."
In other words, while drafting your own will may be the most affordable option, if you don't truly understand or review local probate laws, it can cost you and your loved ones more in the long run in the form of court fees, legal fees, and emotional distress. If you're dealing with any complications or particulars in your family situation—ie you're co-parenting, have adult dependents, have visitation rights but are unprepared to be the chid's full-time guardian should the need arise, etc.—your best bet will be to hire an attorney.
Steps involved in creating a will
A will is a formal legal document that should describe your estate instructions. There are various critical questions that must be answered as part of completing this document and various elements that must be included, whether you're doing it yourself or going through an online platform.
1. Name an executor.
The executor of your will is the person who carries out its instructions upon your death. "This can be an attorney, friend, or family member," says Cisek. "It's your choice, and it's an important decision. Inform the person and brief them about what's contained in your will."
2. Identify the beneficiaries.
Your beneficiaries are people to whom your assets will be distributed. Often, these include children, spouses, other relatives, and friends. "You don't necessarily need to inform them of the will's contents prior to your death or even notify them that they're a beneficiary," says Cisek.
3. Decide how to distribute your property.
This is the big one for a lot of people: Who is getting what? "Money, jewelry, real estate, grandma's dishes, any physical or material object that you want to leave to a particular person, now is the time to make those decisions and put them in writing," says Cisek.
4. Name a guardian.
If you have minor children or dependents, this is one of the most important decisions when creating a will. "It's obviously a very personal choice everyone needs to make for themselves, and that's the key here—you have the obligation to your dependents to make the decision," says Cisek.
Hicks, of Trust & Will, also emphasizes the importance of this step for parents.
"Making sure your assets pass to support your children is important, but is relatively easy compared to choosing a guardian. The choice of a guardian is inherently personal and should reflect who you would want to raise your children if needed," says Hicks.
It's also important to remember that as your children get older, their needs will change. Often, that may mean the ideal guardian for your young children may no longer be the best choice for older children or teenagers.
"Revisit this decision every three to five years to make sure your choices still reflect what is best for your needs," says Hicks.
RELATED: Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents
5. Execute your will.
This sounds big and fancy, but all it really means is signing your will. "You'll need at least two witnesses present and it's best if they're not beneficiaries," says Cisek. "This creates validity and helps to avoid problems later on."
Review your will regularly
Once you've completed your will, it may seem like your work is over. However, Cisek says, it's equally important to revisit the document periodically.
"As assets change, or children are added or grow up, it's a good idea to keep everything current," Cisek explains. "Informing your executor when changes are made and creating a documented history of updates can help form a complete picture of your desires."