How to Make a Will
Making a will is like giving one last gift to your family after you’re gone. It offers clear guidance on what to do with your assets so that your family doesn’t need to fight over everything in court. It may contain other important decisions too, like detailing your wishes for your funeral and appointing guardians for your children.
One out of four older adults age 65-plus don’t have a will.1 If that’s you, don’t worry – making a will is fairly straightforward. And taking the time to write this estate planning document now can save your family from a whole lot of unnecessary stress in the future.
Below, we’ll take a look at how to make a will, what to do with your will once it’s written, and some important resources that make writing a will a bit easier.
What Is a Will?
A will, also known as a last will and testament, is a legal document that details your final wishes about everything from the guardians of your children to the bequeathment of family heirlooms. Creating a will is an important part of estate planning; if you don’t create a will, a judge or state officials will usually be in charge of your estate, which can lead to family conflict and prevents your final wishes from being carried out. A will is just one part of an estate plan, which can also include legal documents like trusts, powers of attorney, and a living will.
How to Make a Will: A Step-by-Step Guide
1. Choose what to include in your will
No two wills look the same. Consider your estate, savings, belongings, pets, and any end-of-life wishes. Collect any paperwork you have – digital or actual paper – that contains information about your finances, including properties you own, life insurance policies, bank accounts, and retirement accounts.
Common items to list in a will include:
- Real estate holdings
- Stocks, bonds, mutual funds
- Cash savings accounts, checking accounts, money market accounts
- Business assets and ownership
- Vehicles or boats
- Family heirlooms
- Other possessions
Helpful Tip: You may not think you own anything valuable enough to include in a will, but odds are, your loved ones would disagree. Try to think about which possessions your children, grandchildren or other relatives would like to have. For example, if your daughter has always admired your wedding China, consider bequeathing it to her in your will.
2. Decide where your belongings go
Next, you need to figure out who gets your stuff, properties, assets, pets, etc.
Do you want to leave your vacation home to your children? If you still have minor children, who should care for them should you pass away? Are you planning to donate a chunk of your estate to a non-profit you volunteer for?
How you divide everything up is entirely up to you. Many married people leave everything to their spouse. However, you should still choose alternate beneficiaries too. That way, your will is still relevant even if your spouse passes away before you.
And, remember, the more specific you are, the less guessing your executor needs to do. Not to mention less bickering amongst family members!
3. Choose an executor
Executors – you guessed it! – execute your will. They make sure that what you want to happen with your assets and last wishes actually happens. Executors make sure your son Bobby gets the family train set he adores and that your sister receives your beloved pooch. An executor’s responsibilities may include offering the will for probate (the legal process of reviewing the will), administering the estate, and paying off the deceased person’s debt and taxes using the estate’s funds.
Did You Know? Around 80 percent of people choose a family member as an executor for their will. Check out our 2023 Estate Planning Report for more interesting findings about estate planning.
Choose your executor wisely. It may be an adult child, a close friend, or an attorney. Whoever the person is, make sure they’re trustworthy, ethical, and willing to take on the responsibility. We spoke with Jim Revels, CPA, member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants' Personal Financial Planning Executive Committee, who says it’s best if the person lives nearby, can be assertive, and is financially responsible. If you choose an attorney, they’re typically paid using funds from your estate.
4. Choose guardians for your dependents
Do you still have minor children in your custody? If so, you’ll need to decide who will care for them in case you’re unable to. Be sure to talk to the person or couple before naming them in your will.
Food for Thought: Consider leaving financial support for the guardians of your children. While not required, it’s a thoughtful way to continue supporting your children and their caretakers after your passing.
5. Write the Will
Now, you need to create the will. There are a few ways to do this:
- Hire a lawyer: Attorneys can draft your will for you. This is the best choice if you want personalized legal advice and you have the spare cash to pay. Jim Revels recommends that you “don’t use just any attorney.” Instead, he advises, “Use an attorney that specializes in trusts and estates and is licensed in the senior’s resident state.” Attorneys typically charge anywhere from $300 to $1,000 or more for a will. You can also find online alternatives that are more affordable. Check out our Trust & Will review for more details.
- Make a DIY will: If you have a simple estate, you can write your own will using online templates, software, or website services. We cover helpful services and resources below.
- Fill out a statutory form: Some states offer standardized statutory forms. Before going this route, make sure it truly reflects your wishes. Then, simply fill in the blanks with your information and follow the instructions for signing. California, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, and Wisconsin provide statutory will forms.
6. Sign the Will in Front of Witnesses
You must sign and date your will in front of at least two witnesses. The witnesses cannot be listed beneficiaries in your will.
If you want your will to get through probate more easily, you’ll also want to include a self-proving affidavit with your document. This is a notarized document that you and your witnesses sign to show that you are the ones who signed and witnessed the original will.
What to Do After You’ve Written Your Will
Where Should I Store My Will?
After you’ve written your will, you need to find a secure yet accessible spot to keep the original. Some good places to keep it include:
- Filed with probate court: Find out if your state lets you file your will with the probate court. If they do, this is the safest storage option. Your attorney or loved ones can easily retrieve it from the court.
- Your attorney’s office: If you use a lawyer to make a will, ask if they can store it for you in their safe. You can ask for it back at any time should you want to relocate it, rewrite it, or work with a new attorney.
- Your home: Store your will in a waterproof and fireproof file box, pouch, or folder. Make sure your attorney and/or your executor know where your will is kept. Store it with other important legacy documents like tax returns, estate plans, insurance policies, and passwords.
Who Should Get Copies of My Will?
It really depends. And, there’s no right or wrong answer here. Some people choose to give everyone affected a copy of the will immediately after finalizing it. This gives beneficiaries a chance to ask questions and understand their roles. Others choose not to hand out copies to anyone.
Whichever approach you choose, it’s still a good idea to make copies of your will in case the original one gets misplaced or destroyed and you need to remake it.
How Often Should I Revisit My Will?
Jim Revels recommends that you should revisit your will every three to five years or after a significant change in circumstances. These can include:
- Changes in the law
- New grandchild
- Financial setback
- Influx of wealth
- Change in your relationship status – marriage, divorce, or break-up
- Losing a spouse
- Losing a child
- Poor health
- Creation of a trust
- The sale of a business
Helpful Tip: Remember, your will is just that – yours! Don’t let anyone pressure you into making changes to your will that you’re not comfortable with.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Make a Will?
You don’t have to use a lawyer to make a will. A will written without the help of a lawyer can still be legal. You just need to make sure that you’re following any relevant laws in your state. For example, most states require two witnesses to be present when you sign your will.
That being said, using a lawyer has its benefits. A lawyer will ensure your will complies with all state laws so that it holds up in court. Using a lawyer is a wise choice for seniors with large or complex estates with a lot of assets. It’s also a good idea if your will includes naming guardians for your minor children.
Of course, using a lawyer comes at a cost. It can cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars to hire a lawyer for will preparation.2 Seniors on a limited budget may be better off writing a will themselves with the help of templates or online will-writing software.
Services and Resources
If you choose a DIY will, you’re not totally on your own. Check out our curated list of services and companies that help seniors write their own wills online.
Nolo’s Quicken Willmaker & Trust 2022
This downloadable software helps you create your last will and testament along with other estate planning documents. You can revise and update your will at any time, too. The price ranges from $89 for the Starter software to $199 for the All-Access software. Check out the Quicken WillMaker product page to learn more.
Make a will online using Fabric’s free online will tool. This service is great for frugal seniors who have basic estates and a simple family situation. You’ll answer a few questions, print out the will, and then sign it.
LegalZoom offers online tools and virtual attorney consultations to help you create a last will and testament in as little as 15 minutes. Creating a state-specific will using LegalZoom’s online step-by-step guide starts at $89. For just $10 more, you can access LegalZoom’s network of attorneys and ask questions about your will for two weeks.
Rocket Lawyer guides you through the will-making process by having you answer questions about your wishes. It then generates a will that reflects your answers that you can purchase for $39.99. Before beginning the process, you choose which state you reside in. This helps ensure the will follows state laws.
If you’re on the fence about hiring a lawyer, FreeWill is a good place to start. As you go through the free will-writing process, you may realize that your estate or family situation is more complicated than you thought. In that case, you can still fill out free forms on FreeWill’s site and then take them to your attorney. This can save you a lot of money if your lawyer charges by the hour.
Gentreo offers fully customizable estate planning services right from your computer. The website walks you through creating a will, living trust, health care proxy, power of attorney, and pet documents, and you can choose who has access to everything. Membership prices start at $100 for the first year and then drop to $50 for every following year.
Other Frequently Asked Questions About Making a Will
Is it legal to write your own will?
Yes, it’s legal to write your own will as long as you abide by state laws. Laws and requirements will vary by state, but generally a will needs to be printed or typed and signed by the person who wrote the will and two witnesses.
How much does it cost to make a will?
The cost to make a will ranges from no cost to thousands of dollars. The price will depend on the complexity of your estate and whether you choose to use a free online template, paid online service, or hire an attorney.
Do my spouse and I need separate wills?
In most circumstances, yes. Some states do recognize joint wills, but separate wills are nearly always recommended by estate planners.3
Where can I get help drafting a will for free?
Some will-making websites, non-profits, programs, and law firms help seniors write wills for free. Search online for free or pro bono will-writing in your area.