Most people believe that they need to engage the services of a lawyer to create a will, but the reality is that nothing is further from the truth. It’s true that if you have a large, high dollar value estate, you’ll probably want to engage a lawyer, because disposing of your assets can be tricky in those situations. You’ll also definitely want to make use of a lawyer’s expertise if you need to set up a Trust for one or more members of your family, but honestly, those situations apply to less than 5% of the population. In all other cases, you can create a legally binding Last Will and Testament yourself, no lawyer needed. Here’s what you need to know in order to do that:
First things first, you’ve got to be at least eighteen years old to make an enforceable, legally binding will. This isn’t usually an issue, because people younger than eighteen generally aren’t thinking it terms of their own death and the disposal of their property after they’re gone, but it bears mentioning.
The second thing is that the will must be identified as such. You can accomplish this simply by entitling the document “Last Will and Testament,” and that counts, so it’s pretty easy to meet that requirement. As a fun side-note, if you’ve ever wondered why legalese tends to use more words than necessary (“last will and testament”, “cease and desist”, etc.), here’s the reason: Back in the earliest days of the profession, lawyers used to get paid by the word! This was their way of padding their paychecks. Over time, the language stuck. Note, however, that few states still recognize a hand written will. You’re going to want to type it up on your computer and print it out.
Next, you should start by stating your name for the official record. An important note here is that at the end of the document, you’ll need to sign your name and date it, so be sure that you use your full, legal name here, and on the signatory line. For instance, if your full name is Christopher, but everyone always calls you Chris for short, you need to reference yourself by your full, formal name.
After you do this, you’re also going to want to name your spouse and any children you have who are currently living. If your children are minors and will need looking after, here’s where you’ll appoint someone as a guardian for them until they are of legal age. You may wish to appoint one or two additional people as alternate guardians just to cover all bases here.
Besides yourself, of course, the most important person in your will is the person you name as the Executor. This person can be a neutral third party, or it can be one of the beneficiaries you leave property to in the will, but in either case, the person needs to be named. This will be the man (or woman) who will see to it that your final wishes are indeed carried out. He or she will handle your final arrangements (assuming you specify those instructions in your will), and be the one to actually divide the property you have in accordance with your wishes.
A will is meaningless unless it contains actionable instructions regarding your estate. That means that you’re going to have to identify your key assets, and name beneficiaries for them. The beneficiaries of the will are simply the people you name in it who get your stuff, whatever it may be. Here, you can get as detailed as you want. Some people just stick with their major assets (who gets the house, the boat, the cars, etc.), but if you want to name a specific beneficiary for your favorite chess board, you can absolutely do that.
In addition to divvying up whatever property you own, you can also leave specific instructions about your final arrangements. Do you want to be buried or cremated? Here’s where you get to say. If you want to be buried in a specific cemetery, again, you can get specific as you wish.
You’ll also probably want to make mention of the fact that you give your approval for your executor to pay for your final expenses out of your pool of assets, before any division of property is made. This will keep people from scrambling to figure out how to pay to bury or cremate you.
Once you’ve handled all of those details, at the bottom of the document, you’ll sign your name before two witnesses, and date the document. Also list your current address. Note that the witnesses must also be at least eighteen years of age, and cannot be beneficiaries whom you have left property to. In other words, your witnesses cannot have a stake in your will at all.
As an added step, you may wish to do all of this in front of a notary, and have the document notarized, but this is not required. The extra step may save your Executor time and trouble in the event that your will is contested by someone, so it’s a good optional step to include if you think something like that might happen.
Once the document is signed, you’ll want to keep it in a secure location. A fireproof safe works, which is where all your other important documents should be housed. The reason for this is that only the original copy will serve. A duplicate won’t be enforceable.
And that’s it. That really is all there is to it. You may have thought that it was more complicated. There’s admittedly a bit of mystique surrounding the process, but hopefully, now that you’ve read this short guide, it has cleared up any misconceptions about the process you may have had. It’s really not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be. One final note here, is that you can update or make changes to your will at any time. Simply write a revised one, following the steps outlined above, and change it when it suits you, or when your life changes in such a way that an update is warranted.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker