In some states, you can write a valid will yourself on a piece of paper. However, if you have kids, property or assets, you’re probably better off using estate-planning software or working with an attorney.
Depending on your assets and family situation, there are several factors to consider when drafting a will. This essential estate planning step can spark conversations about the possessions you value and the legacy you want to leave, so it’s important to take the time to walk through the process.
Ways to write a will
Online will-writing software
Price: Free to $89 and up.
Who it’s best for: People with smaller estates or relatively uncomplicated financial situations and those looking to avoid legal expenses.
An online will maker is an inexpensive way to navigate the will-writing process. While it’s not a good solution for those with large or complicated estates, it’s an excellent starting point for people looking for a simple way to do basic estate planning.
Best for: Ease of use. Cost: One-time fee of $159 per individual or $259 for couples. $19 annual membership fee thereafter.
Best for: Users who want an all-inclusive experience. Cost: $99 per year for Starter plan. $139 per year for Plus plan. $209 per year for All Access plan.
Best for: State-specific legal advice. Cost: $89 for Basic will plan. $99 for Comprehensive will plan. $249 for Estate Plan Bundle.
Estate planning lawyers
Price: $300 to $1,000 and up flat fee or $200 and up hourly.
Who it’s best for: People with large or complicated estates, or those who want to use more advanced estate planning techniques to minimize estate taxes or bypass probate, the legal process for distributing a deceased person’s assets.
Estate planning attorneys can work with you to create a comprehensive estate plan including a will, trust and advance directives. They’ll ensure your documents are legally binding in your state and can help you navigate complex assets or family circumstances.
How to write a will in 7 steps
1. Account for all possessions
Everything you own, from physical property to financial accounts, is part of your estate. Assets you’ll include in your will include real estate, vehicles, valuables and other personal property.
Even if you intend to leave your entire estate to a single heir, creating a comprehensive inventory is important to ensure that none of your assets end up in the wrong place, such as an old workplace retirement account that lists your ex-spouse as the beneficiary.
2. Determine distribution
It can be helpful to separate bequests into categories to first take care of your beneficiaries’ needs, then consider sentimental gifts.
Start with larger assets such as property and accounts. If you want to explain your choices — leaving less to one child because you supported them financially for longer, for example — write a separate letter to your beneficiaries so you can keep the language in your will clear and precise.
Talk with family and friends to learn who would most appreciate certain belongings and record which items should go to whom.
Double-check the beneficiaries listed on your bank accounts, life insurance policies and retirement plans. Beneficiary designations override the wishes outlined in your will, so make sure your designations are aligned.
3. Think about your children
If you have minor children, you will need to decide who will take care of them once you’re gone. This means naming a guardian in your will in the event that both you and the other parent are not able to care for them. If you don’t appoint a guardian, your state court will have to appoint one without your input.
4. Name an executor
An executor ensures that the directions in your will are carried out after your death. You can choose a family member to be your executor, but if you’re concerned about their ability to handle your estate during a difficult time, you can name your lawyer or an institution such as your bank.
» How does your executor distribute your estate? Learn about the probate process
5. Factor in fees
If your executor is an institution or an attorney, they’ll likely charge a fee to handle your estate. If you select a friend or family member, you’ll need to decide whether or not to pay that person for their services. Executor fees are paid out of your estate.
6. Make your will official
In most states, you’ll need to sign your will in front of at least two witnesses. In Colorado and North Dakota, you can have your will notarized instead of witnessed. Louisiana requires wills to be both notarized and witnessed.
Store a hard copy of your will in a safe place, which could be a fireproof safe in your home or office or a bank-safe deposit box. Be sure to back up the digital version, too. Let your spouse, executor or a trusted friend know where your will can be found.
7. Update as needed
As your life and your heirs’ lives change, you may want to change your will. Did you sell an asset you had planned to leave to a child? Decide what you’ll bequeath instead. Did a potential heir die before you? Choose a new recipient for the items you planned to leave to them.
Don’t put off such updates; the court and your executor can’t confirm your intentions unless you’ve put them down on paper.
Some online will makers offer free updates, though some require an ongoing membership to make changes ranging from $19 annually to $39 monthly. An estate planning attorney may charge a $100 to $500 fee to update a will.