Can I Write My Own Will?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Can you write your own will? Sure you can. You can also build your own house, but that doesn’t mean you should.

A will is an important legal document that contains your instructions and wishes for handling your estate and distributing the property and assets you own after you die. Family infighting, unexpected estate taxes, and other complications happen even when professionals are involved. They’re much more likely when an estate planning attorney is not called in.

What should a Will contain?

If you only have limited assets, it may not be worth calling in an expensive lawyer to review everything. Sites like LegalZoom can guide you through the process from writing your will to filing it. If you need a more extensive estate plan, lawyers can take care of much more than just giving you sound mind.

On a basic level, a will requires the following elements:

  • The names of the people you want to leave your property to – your beneficiaries
  • Any special gifts or property you want to leave – such as the vacation house to my son and the boat to my daughter and $20,000 to my college
  • The percentage of the remaining assets each beneficiary should receive – such as each of my 3 children should receive an equal share of my estate, or perhaps my sister should receive 10%, my son John and daughter Emily should each receive 20%, my son Bill 10%, and the remaining 40% should be divided up amongst my grandchildren
  • A Guardian for the care of your minor children if the other parent is not available
  • Arrangements for handling the property that going to minor children or young adults – such as holding it in trust and distributing it in stages starting at age 21
  • The name of the person you want to handle your estate and distribute the assets, called the Executor or Personal Representative.

Your will should be written carefully to comply with your state’s laws. Online services offer a cheap and easy way to get things moving for some. Always be sure that you’re getting all the services you need for peace of mind and proper execution.

In order to be valid, the will should be writing, you should sign it at the end in front of 2 or 3 witnesses, and the witnesses will also sign it. Many people also have their estate planning document notarized. The witnesses should be people who would not benefit as a result of the will. Failing to have the will properly witnessed, and being unable to locate the witnesses years later, often leads to the document being contested. Especially if there’s already concerns among heirs, it could get ugly if it’s not clear.

Your will generally does not control who gets your life insurance money or your retirement accounts, such as an IRA or 401k. They go to the beneficiaries you named in the policy or plan.

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Is a Living Trust an Effective Alternative to a Will?

A will isn’t right for everyone. You may want to distribute your belongings differently, or you may want to explore different tax benefits. Revocable living trusts allow grantors to maintain control over their assets. If you want to change your trust, you can do so at any time. But depending on the type of trust and assets, it can have significant organizational and tax benefits. Depending on various facets, they can change to irrevocable trusts.

There are many books, software packages, and online resources and document preparation services that promise to help you prepare a will. But it’s more than a simple document you write at home. Unless you have a very simple family situation and very few assets, the very best homemade or online will is no a substitute for the personalized legal advice based on your wishes and needs. Contacting an estate lawyer is a simple step, but an essential one. It can help you create a plan that would achieve what you’d want, in a tax efficient manner, if something happens to you.

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