How to Write a Will: What to Know

by Carrie Ferland

Each year, many people pass away intestate -- without a will -- because they fear they cannot afford the expense of hiring an attorney to draft one. While retaining an attorney isn’t a bad idea, you don’t need an expert to execute a valid will -- you can craft a will even if you have no experience with estate planning. As long as you take the initiative to learn your state’s requirements for writing a will and you follow some guidelines, you can draft and execute a valid will yourself.

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Step 1

Review your state's probate code, which you can find at your local law library, or possibly online through your state’s official website. Each state will have differing laws governing estate planning, and you should become familiar with these guidelines prior to beginning the process. Your state probate code will provide instructions for acceptable formats, what your will should address and where to file your will to initiate probate after your passing. Understanding the probate process is perhaps the most important step to drafting your will.

Step 2

Draft a list of all major assets, including, but not limited to, real property, investments and cash assets. Whenever applicable, provide locations, addresses, account numbers and passwords so your executor can access these assets after your passing. Once the list is complete, begin thinking about who you want to name as beneficiaries and how you will divide these assets among them.

Step 3

Decide who you would like to act as the executor of your estate. Discuss your choice with this person to ensure he is willing to serve. The probate process sometimes can be overwhelming in the days and months following the decedent’s death, so choose someone you trust to handle these responsibilities in difficult times. If you are uncomfortable choosing a friend or family member, or have an extensive estate, you could also hire an attorney to handle this duty. If possible, appoint at least one alternative executor to serve in the event your first choice is unable to act on your behalf.

Step 4

Compile a list of your beneficiaries, including relatives and friends to whom you want to bequeath your property, and organizations to which you want to make a donation upon your death. Include any relatives you plan to disinherit, and clearly define each person as excluded from inheriting any part of your estate. If you merely fail to mention these persons, the court may believe it was an oversight and award them a portion of your estate. If you name the individuals and explicitly state in the body of the will that they are not to inherit a portion of the estate, the court will understand your intent and act accordingly.

Step 5

Draft the will following the appropriate guidelines defined by your state. Contact your local probate court and ask if it offers a “fill-in-the-blanks” form to complete your will. If not, you can download a sample will for your state online; commercial forms can cost, on average, between $20 and $150, depending on the complexity of your estate and your specific needs.

Step 6

Sign the bottom of your will in the presence of at least two disinterested witnesses who are not listed as beneficiaries to your estate, then have both witnesses sign the bottom as well. Alternatively, if your state permits it, submit your completed will to a notary public for notarization. Store your signed will somewhere safe, such as a fireproof lockbox or a secure filing cabinet. Be sure to provide your executor and a few trusted relatives with instructions on how to retrieve your will after your passing.