How to Write a Simple Will

It’s not so hard, so don’t be intimidated

A will lays out what you want to happen to your assets after you die. If you’ve ever worried about who will get your wedding ring, inherit your house, or take care of your cat after you die, it might be time to create a will or update an existing will that’s out of date.

As its name implies, a simple will is best for people with simple financial situations. It's a do-it-yourself project that does not require a lawyer. Many do need one. They include people who want to set up a trust, have substantial assets, have assets in multiple states, have gotten divorced and/or remarried, have stepchildren, or own a business, to name just a few potentially complex situations.

Key Takeaways

  • If you don’t want your state to decide what happens to your assets after you die, you need to have a will.
  • The stress of creating a will is probably not as bad as the stress that your loved ones may experience if you don’t have one.
  • A simple will can solve a lot of problems, but it’s appropriate only for people with straightforward financial and family situations.
  • People with more complex financial or family situations should consult an attorney.

What Is a Simple Will?

A simple will says what you want to happen to your stuff when you die. Your stuff might include everything from your great-grandmother’s cuckoo clock to your adolescent journals to your car, house, and bank accounts.

You might be surprised to learn that your pets are considered property, so you’ll need to leave them to someone to ensure their care.

What Makes a Simple Will Valid?

Besides not wanting to think about death and not knowing where to start, fear of making a will that won’t hold up after they’re gone might be one of the biggest reasons why people put off creating a last will and testament.

One of the most important things to know is that the requirements to make a simple will valid depend on the state where you reside.

Generally, you must be at least 18 years old, create the will when you are of sound mind and not under duress, put your will in writing, and sign it.

You will typically need two or three adults to watch you sign your will, and then sign it themselves as witnesses. In some states, you will need to have a notary public as a witness.

Information to Include in a Simple Will

A simple will should identify you by your full name and address, be dated, and have your signature. It should state that you understand the document you’re signing and that no one is pressuring you to sign it. It should also state that any previous wills you’ve created are invalid and superseded by this new one.

You’ll name a personal representative, often called an executor, to carry out your wishes. You’ll also name an alternate in case your first choice can’t serve. If you have minor children, you’ll name whom you would want to become their legal guardians and include the names of alternates.

Don’t Surprise Your Executors or Guardians

Being an executor of a will is a major responsibility, and becoming a child’s guardian is even more so. Discuss your wishes with the people you want to select. Make sure they would be willing to accept their roles before you name them in your will. Your will can provide compensation for these people should they have to step in.

Next, you’ll name beneficiaries and alternates to receive specific assets. Identify them by their full names, current addresses, and relationship to you, then describe in detail what you’re leaving to them.

Account Beneficiaries vs. Will Beneficiaries

Many assets, such as a life insurance policy, retirement account, or bank account, let you name a beneficiary or beneficiaries (and alternates) to receive your property almost immediately after your death. These transfer-on-death designations keep these assets out of probate court, allowing your heirs to get them quickly and without court fees.

Be careful: These designations take precedence over what you write in your will. If your will leaves your savings account to your daughter but your savings account names your ex-spouse as the beneficiary, your ex-spouse will get that money.

You may also want to include instructions authorizing your personal representative to take certain financial actions to settle your estate, such as paying debts, paying taxes, hiring an attorney or accountant for help, and selling investments.

Making Things Official

Once you’ve drafted your will, make it official. Sign it in front of whatever witnesses your state requires. That might be two or three disinterested parties who won’t inherit anything from you, a notary public, or both.

Make copies of your will, and store the original in a secure place that your executor will be able to access when needed.

Finally, make sure to revisit your will every few years or after a major life change. If it no longer reflects your wishes, find out the best way to update it, which might mean redoing it.

Pets Aren’t People...

...they’re better. But seriously, don’t forget to provide for your pets. Leave them to someone you trust to take good care of them or find them a loving new home. Also consider leaving this caretaker enough money to look after your pet, especially if your companion requires a special diet, medication, or frequent veterinary care. Even if you have pet insurance, the policy may not transfer to a new owner.

You can’t leave money to your pets, because the law treats them as property. Your cat may have made the occasional accidental purchase by stomping across your keyboard but probably can't pull that off regularly.

Do I Need a Will?

Yes, for your own peace of mind and to make life easier for the loved ones who you leave behind, you should have a will.

It is vitally important if you have dependents. If you don’t have dependents or substantial assets, you might consider a simple will. Just be sure you do it properly.

In any case, set up those beneficiary designations on your accounts and update them as needed. It's the quickest way to get your assets into the hands of your heirs.

How Much Does a Simple Will Cost?

Nothing, if you type it up yourself using a free online template and your state doesn't require that it be notarized.

If you’re afraid that you’ll make a mistake that would make your will unclear or invalid—or if you just feel confused or overwhelmed by the process—consider upgrading to a paid option.

Plenty of online services will walk you through creating a will specific to your state and your circumstances. Some can even help you identify whether a simple will is the best document for your needs. The cost generally ranges from $50 to $200.

As for getting your will notarized, you can find notaries working out of their homes or small businesses in most communities. They also can be found at UPS stores. They are even mobile notaries who will come to your house.

A notary won’t review your will or tell you if it will hold up in court. Their only job is to verify your identity, witness your signature, and record the transaction in their notary book.

The cost of hiring an attorney to prepare your will generally can range from $300 to $1,200, depending on the going rate in your area, the attorney’s experience, and the complexity of your situation.

A small but interesting study of wills in Alameda and San Francisco counties by University of California Davis law professor David Horton found that lawyer-drafted wills may be less likely to be contested in court; homemade and holographic wills were more likely to be contested.

What Happens If I Die Without a Will?

If you die without a will, trust, or other legal document stating what should happen to your assets when you die, you are said to have died intestate and your state’s laws will determine how the probate court distributes your assets.

Even if you die with a valid will, your state’s probate court will oversee the distribution of your assets. This process can be relatively simple or take months, depending on your state and how complex your situation is. The court charges a probate fee for its service.

The Bottom Line

Don’t be afraid to tackle your will. Pick a day, put it on your calendar, and get it done. It won’t be as bad as you think.

Article Sources
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  1. Nolo. “Estate Planning for Pets.”

  2. Nolo. “Sample Will.”

  3. Nolo. “Guardianship for Your Children.”

  4. FreeWill. “Cost of a Will: 6 Options and Their Prices.”

  5. The UPS Store. “Notary Services.”

  6. National Notary Association. “What Is a Notary Public?

  7. Nolo. “How Much Will a Lawyer Charge to Write Your Will?

  8. University of California Davis Law Review. “Do-It-Yourself Wills,” Page 2392 (Page 36 of PDF).

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