Doing it Yourself

Attorneys and other estate planners do not come cheaply, so when it comes time to make your last will and testament, can you go it alone? While doing it yourself may be the fastest, easiest, and least expensive option, at least if your estate is very simple. Even in this case, it is best to avoid doing it yourself if you have minor children, since the language outlining guardianship is very specific and complex or have a blended family, where there is no option to leave everything to your spouse. 

It’s not just ‘I leave everything to my spouse’ that can be managed with a downloaded will, or will-making software or websites. Many estates with higher levels of complexity can also be done. Your ability to do this will vary, depending on your abilities and complexity of the laws in your state. You must be honest with yourself when deciding, with help if necessary, what level of complexity you can handle before going to a professional.

There are certainly places you can access will documents or programs, but most are designed to be simple and may only cover the most basic details or steps of estate planning and the sources may not be able to keep the templates or program up to date.

A quick summary of the will-making process

This process was partially outlined in What Should Be Included in Your Will and, should you decide your will is going to be simple to create, here is a brief summary of the steps to take, which may be labeled as consecutively numbered “Articles.” The details of each will be found in a separate section.

  • You should begin by clearly labelling the document “Last Will and Testament” and state your full name and address.

You should also number each page.

  • Write an introduction to your will, which may be labeled as Article One.

You must testify that you are at least 18 years old, are of sound mind, and are not creating the will under duress or undue influence.

State that this is your last will and testament, and that it invalidates any previous wills or codicils (agenda or additions).

To make your identity absolutely clear you may want to include your social security number and birth date, other identifying details, such as maiden name, identification number, or spouse and children’s name

If you are using an online program, the program should automatically generate this introduction.

  • Select an executor/personal representative, usually a spouse or close friend.

You may appoint a professional executor if you prefer. It is best to designate one or more alternates or backups.

  • Identify your heirs/primary beneficiaries, typically your spouse, life partner and children.
  • Be sure you clearly identify them by name and relationship to you so that there is no ambiguity as to their identities.
  • It is best if beneficiaries do not sign or “witness” the will. This may be illegal in many states.
  • Try and include some what-if provisions in case a named beneficiary cannot inherit as intended (e.g., the beneficiary has died).
  • If you are intentionally leaving someone out of your will, including an explanation why might prevent challenges after your death.
  • Name a guardian for any minor or dependent children if there will be no other natural parent to take care of them. If you do not choose a person, the court will appoint one for you.
  • Assess and divide your property, except assets that already have a designated beneficiary or are jointly-owned, which are not considered part of your estate.
  • Give clear details for assets, including their market value.
  • Specify how assets (real estate, vehicles, investments, collectibles) will be divided among your beneficiaries.
  • Create a separate section for assets in:
    • other states which may be subject to state-specific estate or inheritance taxes 
    • foreign assets which may be subject to country-specific inheritance taxes and/or regulations
  • Try and account for everything, even if it is just a blanket statement, called a “leftover clause,” that says everything else goes to (beneficiary name).
  • Also include any taxes, debts, or liens on the estate.
  • You may also want to create a “Bequests” section that list other people or entities who will receive property or cash.
  • You can also express your preferences for your funeral and how you would like your remains to be disposed.
  • Print your name followed by your signature in the presence of at least two witnesses, although some states require three.
  • If you have created a will using an online service, have it sent to you so you can sign a copy.
  • Some states require that your signature be notarized, i.e. signed in the presence of a public notary and stamped with the notary’s seal.
    • Even if not, it may be best to have it done anyway. 
    • An alternative is for them to sign a “self-proving” affidavit.
      • This is a statement that is sworn by your witnesses before a notary public. 
      • This affidavit relieves your witnesses from having to swear in probate court to the validity of your will.
  • You may want to include a short paragraph stating that: this document, consisting of (number) pages, was signed by (Your Name) as their Last Will and Testament in the presence of us (the witnesses), at your request, in your presence and in the presence of each other, has been signed with our names as witnesses. We each certify that at the time they signed this Last Will and Testament, (Your Name) was mentally competent and acting voluntarily.
  • Have your witnesses sign your will.
  • Include their printed names and their addresses.
  • Confirm that they are of legal age, sound mind and not under duress or undue influence upon signing.
  • Your beneficiaries should not be witnesses
  • If you are doing it yourself, you must carefully follow the laws of your state, since any mistake can invalidate your entire will.

Make sure what you are using accounts for state-to-state variations in state estate taxation, inheritance tax, notarization, number of witnesses, probate laws, disinheritance allowance, all aspects