You don’t need a lawyer to write a Will.
A lawyer, or estate planning attorney is trained in the law. If you have doubts about a particular situation, and you need a legal opinion on this situation, then you should speak to a lawyer.
Most people when they write a Will do not need to consult with a legal professional.
For example, if you wanted to write a Will that leaves everything to your spouse. But if you were both involved in a common accident, your estate would be divided between your children. This is a very standard Last Will and Testament. There is no legal nuance with this Will, and you would not need legal advice to prepare it.
Even if you had to set up a trust for a minor child, and name a guardian for your children, it is still a simple Last Will and Testament. There would be no need to pay $500 or more for this type of Will.
Can you write your own Will?
Everybody has a right to prepare their Will. There is no legal requirement to use the services or a lawyer, estate planning attorney or notary. You can in theory write your Will on the back of a napkin. It would be a perfectly legal Last Will and Testament.
In order to be a legal Last Will and Testament, the document simply has to be written (either typed or handwritten), and signed. Typed documents (most Wills) also need to be signed in the presence of two witnesses.
A Will written entirely in your own handwriting is called a “holographic” Will. It is special because it does not have to be witnessed. Most States (but not all) accept a holographic Will signed without witnesses. The law allows this to accommodate people in a desperate situation who need to write a Will in a hurry, and may not have the luxury of finding witnesses.
Handwriting your own Will is not recommended though, unless you find yourself in that desperate situation. Aretha Franklin took this approach, and it will take lawyers years to settle the estate.
We do not all have the financial means to pay for legal advice from an estate planning attorney. But that would never be a barrier to preparing a Will.
So yes, you can write your own Will.
Is it legal to write your own Will?
Every State has its own laws that describe the requirements for a legal Last Will and Testament. The laws are described in various “Probate codes” or the equivalent name for your estate. For example, the California Probate Code, or the Texas Probate Code.
Generally, these laws are remarkably similar. They all discuss the legal requirements for a Will. They all describe a legal Will as a document that is expressed in writing, and then signed in the presence of two adult witnesses. The witnesses cannot be beneficiaries in the Will (technically, a witness cannot receive anything from the Will, so the Will is not invalidated, but the bequest to the witness cannot be received).
All States allow you to write your own Will. There is nothing in any legal statute that requires you to use a lawyer or attorney to write a Last Will and Testament.
The holographic Will
There is a very special type of Will called a holographic Will. It is a document written entirely in your own handwriting. It is special because it does not require witnesses. It can be simply signed without any witness signatures and it is accepted by the courts.
The law allows this to address desperate situations, where you are in dire trouble, and you do not have access to two witnesses. Remember Aron Ralston whose arm got stuck for 124 hours? he could have written a holographic Will without the need for witnesses.
But a holographic Will is not accepted in all US States.
The following states recognize holographic wills made within the state, though witnessing requirements vary: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
But writing your own Will does not mean that you have prepared a holographic Will. For example, if you write a Will using the service at USLegalWills.com you are writing your own Will. This would be accepted in all US States. It is a standard Will signed in the presence of two witnesses and a perfectly legal Last Will and Testament.
How can you write your own Will?
There are essentially three ways to write your own Will.
1. Handwrite your own Will starting with a blank piece of paper.
This is a classic Holographic Will and the option taken by Aretha Franklin. It is a really poor approach unless you are in an absolutely desperate situation. Writing your own Last Will and Testament with no legal training is extremely difficult. Even attorneys use software to prepare Wills.
Even with years of legal training, not many estate planning attorneys trust their own ability to write a quality Last Will and Testament starting with a blank sheet of paper.
The advantage of this approach is that you can sit down and do it right now. It will cost you nothing (but could cost your family a small fortune if you make a mess of it).
The disadvantage is that you could end up with a Will riddled with important errors.
2. Use a blank form kit.
This is an attempt to put some structure to a blank piece of paper. It usually includes some pre-filled headings, and a space for signing the document. Of course, because it is not all in your handwriting, this type of Will would need to be signed in the presence of two witnesses.
These kits can be free or even cheap, but again, they can lead to a number of problems. Often they have so much blank space, that they can be quite difficult to complete. This one for example.
This blank form kit is giving you half a page to describe the powers being granted to your Executor. It’s almost impossible with no legal training.
This is the Last Will and Testament written by a retired Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. It is so brief and vague, that most experts estimate that the Will cost his family hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Will Kits are rarely State specific, not usually kept up to date, and usually leave too much in the hands of the user. They are easy to mess up completely. But you would never know that a mistake has been made.
The advantage of these kits is that again, they are cheap. But they really aren’t very convenient, because they must still be purchased from a store, and once completed, they must be signed in the presence of two witnesses.
3. Use an online interactive service.
This is an increasingly popular option that gives you a professional grade Last Will and Testament at the price of a Will kit. Services like the one at USLegalWills.com guide you through the process for preparing a Will, much like tax preparation software. It checks for errors, and asks you for your intentions in everyday language. The service translates the answers to the questions into a complete legal Will.
Online interactive services are getting more sophisticated and allow for charitable bequests, trusts for pets, minor trusts, lifetime interest trusts and even overseas assets.
Services like the one at USLegalWills.com also have additional features like expressing your Funeral wishes, a Digital Vault, and even a way to keep an inventory of assets for your Executor.
Can I write my own Will for free?
You can definitely write a Last Will and Testament for free. But it is very difficult to write a well-drafted, quality Will for free.
A Last Will and Testament is a document that explains that it is your Will, usually names an Executor, describes the distribution of your estate, and is signed by witnesses. This is a Will
There are so many problems with this Will, that although it’s free it is absolutely unenforceable as a Will (feel free to add a comment if you think you know why this Will cannot possibly work).
But even if it worked. It has an intention, but no contingencies. What happens if the brother or the wife predecease John Doe? then what?
Free Will services offer their services at no charge by one of three ways;
- The final Will is garbage, it was not prepared by lawyers, not kept up to date, and probably won’t work
- The service claims to be free, but then charges you some kind of add-on service or monthly subscription
- The service sells your information to a third party; maybe an insurance company who then tries to sell you their services.
The service at USLegalWills.com costs $39.95. This cost of a Will covers our legal team, customer support, software development and marketing costs. If a service charges nothing, it does not have anybody backing up the service.
Can I use a Will template to write my own Will?
No two situations are the same. The software at USLegalWills.com has hundreds of different permutations of Wills that it can create.
Blank form Will templates are usually created for a specific State. They then have different templates for a single person, married, and then married with one or more children.
But you would have to make a distinction between adult children and minor children.
Then you would need to determine if you want to set up a trust for the care of a pet, or a charitable bequest. Supposing your spouse was not the biological parent of your children, you may want to set up a lifetime interest trust.
By basing your Will on a blank template, you really won’t know what your Will is missing. It makes much more sense to work through interactive software to prepare a Will rather than rely on a blank form template or sample Will.
Ten reasons why writing your own Will makes sense
1. Writing your own Will is affordable
Writing your own Will using an online interactive service will cost you about 90 to 95 percent less than using an estate planning attorney. It is often difficult to ascertain exactly how much an attorney is going to charge you. Prices for Will writing usually “start” at $500, but if you want to include a trust for a minor, or a lifetime interest trust, it can soon push way over $1,000. Investopedia has the price of a lawyer written Will ranging from $300 to over $1,000. But be careful with the $300 Will (see reason 7 below).
The cost for preparing a Will at USLegalWills.com is $39.95. No sliding scale, no increased costs for multiple bequests, guardianship, pet trusts, lifetime interest trusts, bequests to charities. Just $39.95.
Also keep in mind that you are not receiving a document that is in any way inferior to one prepared by a lawyer. We use the exact same software that they use, so in most cases, the final document is word-for-word identical.
2. Preparing your own Will is convenient.
It may come as a surprise given the huge financial savings, but most people do not use our service at USLegalWills.com because it is cheaper.
If you are a married professional with young children, and you want to prepare your Will through an estate planning lawyer, you will have to book time off work, co-ordinate this with your spouse, perhaps arrange childcare for your children. Meet with the attorney, and discuss some of the key decisions. You may then have to get together with family to consult on your key appointments like guardianship for your children, or your Executor.
Then you need to make a follow up appointment with the lawyer. Again, co-ordinating this with your spouse.
Then wait for the document to be prepared, so that you can return to the lawyer again for the review, and signing of the document. Make sure you do review it, because mistakes can be made.
Here are the same people preparing their Wills at USLegalWills.com.
3. If you write your own Will you will learn something
We love to receive feedback from customers who have created their Will at USLegalWills.com. We are proud to be sitting with a 5.0 star rating on Google reviews (that is a very, very difficult rating to achieve).
But the reviews are interesting.
People talk about the process. They make reference to the help text, the language and the customer support.
Anybody who uses our service learns about their Will and the clauses that go into the document. At the end, you have a document that you understand. Not something that somebody has put together for you.
4. Making your own Will allows you to give it some thought – take as long as you need
As you step through the Will writing service, you will be asked questions that you may not have considered. Do you want to make charitable bequests? who should take care of your pets? what happens if your first choice beneficiaries pre-decease you? who should be your backup Executor?
We advertise that you can complete the service in 20 minutes. This is possible, but not a requirement. You can actually take as long as you wish to get the document exactly the way you want it. Your Will must reflect your wishes, but some decisions take some significant thought.
If you meet with an attorney to prepare your Will, you will feel an urgency to get the document completed in one sitting. You may find yourself rushing to make decisions to save a return visit. When you write your own Will you can take as long as you need.
5. Updating your Will is much easier
Traditionally the process for updating a Will was expensive and inconvenient. As a result people postponed the writing of their Will until that perfect moment in their life when nothing was likely to change.
The problem is, that moment never arrives.
You may want to write your Will after you have got married, bought a house, had children, or when your children are adults, or when you are retired, or when you have grandchildren.
Even if your family status doesn’t change, there are many reasons to update your Will.
You may be exposed to a charity doing some wonderful work and you feel compelled to include them in your Will. This is called planned giving and an important part of your Will.
Your alternate Executor may be taken ill and no longer able to serve. Your daughter may win the lottery. The guardians for your children may move to Dubai.
No matter when you write your Will, there is a good chance that at some point it will need updating. In fact, if you write a Will with a lawyer, the document could be out of date by the time you get home.
If you write your own Will using an online service, and you want to add a charitable bequest, you can simply login to your account, jump to that section, add the bequest then print and sign the new Will. It takes 5 minutes.
6. If you prepare your own Will you can be more thorough in your distribution plan
Your Last Will and Testament is a wonderful opportunity to change a number of lives. We are always surprised when we are asked the question “what is the difference between dying with or without a Will”.
It is possible that the distribution of your estate when you die without a Will may match your intentions, but it is unlikely.
Your Will allows you to leave charitable bequests, leave legacies to loved ones, leave prized possessions to people who would actually appreciate them.
You can be as detailed as you wish in your Will when you are making specific bequests. You can leave $10,000 to your church, $5,000 to your niece, your guitar to your grandson, your signed Babe Ruth baseball card to the person who will treasure it.
When Aretha Franklin died without a proper Will she didn’t just leave a mess for her loved ones. She missed a huge opportunity to leave a meaningful legacy. Her estate is being swallowed up by litigating lawyers. If she had given it a little thought she could have put aside some of her $80M estate to create a scholarship fund for young musicians.
Your Last Will and Testament is an opportunity to do something great. Don’t waste it and leave everything to a State formula for distributing your estate (after everything has been auctioned off to random strangers).
7. Write your own Will and make your own appointments
There are many estate planning attorneys who write Wills at a very discounted rate in order to win a more lucrative part of your business; the administration of your estate. You can quite easily be convinced that it makes sense to appoint your attorney to be the Executor of your estate.
This makes absolutely no sense.
A professional Executor will charge an hourly rate on top of a percentage of your estate. So if you need to simply transfer ownership of your home to your beneficiary, and it’s worth $500,000, then your Executor will earn around $20,000 for half a day’s work.
Executor fees can be outrageous.
It makes much more sense to name a family member or friend to be your Executor, and then allow them to hire professional help when they need it, on an hourly basis.
Not to pay the Executor a percentage of your estate.
Many attorneys require that they are named the Executor of the estate if they prepare the Will. It is a very lucrative part of their business.
Of course, if you write your own Will, you can name whoever you wish to be your Executor.
8. Using an online service gives you more features
Most online Will writing services have expanded the service offering now to include much more than a simple document.
For example, at USLegalWills.com we have continued to enhance our services over the last decade to address wider estate planning issues.
For example, when you leave your “entire estate” to your beneficiaries, how does your Executor know the extent of your entire estate? How will your Executor deal with your digital assets? How will the Executor know that nothing has been missed?
At USLegalWills.com we have built a variety of services to help with this including:
- MyVault – a tool that allows you to upload important files to be retrieved by your loved ones
- MyMessages – the ability to prepare pre-written messages to be distributed after you have passed away
- MyLifeLocker – an online tool that allows you to keep an inventory of your assets to be accessed by your Executor after you have passed away and not before
Writing your Will is an important first step. But eventually your assets have to get to your beneficiaries, and there are tools to help your Executor with this daunting task.
If you write your Will with an estate planning attorney, your Executor will not receive any assistance with this. Your attorney will not know the extent of your assets.
9. You can change your mind
People who use the service at USLegalWills.com on average login to their accounts 2.4 times a year.
We spoke earlier about the times when you may need to make an update to your Will. Writing your Will is not a once-in-a-lifetime activity. You may have put something into your Will that no longer reflects your wishes.
You may have simply changed your mind about something in your Will.
If you write your own Will using a service like the one at USLegalWills.com you can simply login to your account, and change your distribution plan. It only takes a few minutes.
10. If you write your own Will – you will actually get it done.
USLegalWills.com recently commissioned a survey that revealed that only 28 percent of American adults had an up-to-date Will.
When reported by age some of the results were shocking. Only half of Americans over the age of 65 had an up-to-date Will, and that age category fared better than every other category.
Why don’t people write their Will?
The process has traditionally been inconvenient and expensive. As a result people wait, because they only want to do it once, and once it has been done, people are reluctant to make any changes.
If you write your own Will using an online service like the one at USLegalWills.com you are likely to get it done. It takes 20 minutes, the service can be completed on an iPad, computer or even your smartphone. It only costs $39.95. A Mirror Will for your spouse costs $23.97.
There’s really no need to think about it any longer. Step through the service, it’s not as difficult as you may think.
Tim Hewson is one of the founders of USLegalWills.com.
He has over 20 years of experience helping people to write their Will and other estate planning documents. He has been interviewed by many of the major news media outlets, and has contributed to articles in The New York Times, NY Metro Parents, U.S. News & World Report, and other leading publications. He has also contributed to a number of financial planning books.
Throughout his career, Tim has written extensively on the subject of Will writing and estate planning.
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