Writing your own will is a relatively straightforward process if your assets and bequests are also straightforward. In these circumstances, as long as you comply with the laws of your state, your will is likely to stand up in a court of law and be executed according to your wishes. You can easily write your own will through one of two methods: either draft it yourself on a computer or typewriter, or create one through an online program.
Write the introduction to the will. Start by clearly labeling the document “Last Will and Testament.” Next, state your full name and address, and testify that you are over the age of 18, are of sound mind and are not making the will under duress. Finally, write that this is your last will and testament, and that it revokes any previously made will or codicil. You may want to include your social security number and birth date for clarity. If you are using an online program, the program should automatically generate this introduction.
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Select an executor. An executor is the person who carries out the directions of your will. Most married people name their spouse as the executor; however, it is also common to name a capable friend. Talk to this person about his willingness to take on this responsibility before officially naming him as executor. Also choose an alternate executor in the event that your first choice is unwilling or unable to perform his duties upon your death.
Identify your heirs. Normally, your spouse, life partner and children are the primary beneficiaries; however, you may want to make provisions for other persons. Be sure to clearly identify these persons so that there is no ambiguity as to their identities. Also, note that in most states the spouse has a legal right to inherit. Seek professional legal advice if you reside in one of these states and want to disinherit your spouse.
Name a guardian for any minor or dependent children. If your children are of an age where they still require guardianship and have no other natural parent to take care of them, choose a person to take care of your children until they reach the age of majority. Be sure to discuss this responsibility with the person that you would like to name, as this is a weighty commitment that could last for many years. If you do not choose a person, the court will appoint one for you.
Assess and divide your property. List your assets, including real estate, bank accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds and tangible assets, then assign your heirs a percentage of your total assets. For example, you might say that your wife is to receive 50 percent of your assets, while both your children will receive 25 percent each. You can also make individual bequests of specific pieces of property or cash amounts to individuals other than your named heirs. Note that assets that already have a designated beneficiary or are jointly-owned are not considered part of your estate.
Sign the will. If you have created a will through an online program, have the document sent to you before signing sign it. Some states require that your signature be notarized, meaning signed in the presence of a public notary and stamped with the notary’s seal.
Ask witnesses to sign the will. Every state requires at least two witnesses to sign the will, and some states require three. The witnesses usually must not be named beneficiaries in the will. Take care to carefully follow the laws of your state with regard to witnesses, as a mistake can invalidate your entire will.
Make sure that your will fully complies with applicable state laws. If you fail to create a valid will, then your assets will be distributed by the court and not according to your wishes.
If your assets and/or bequests are complicated -- if you own property in multiple states, have more than $2 million in assets or suspect that someone may contest the will, for example -- you may be better off having a professional draft your will.
Avoid handwriting a will, if possible. Only a few states allow it, and even in those states it can give rise to numerous complications.
Barbara Diggs is a freelance writer living in France. A former corporate lawyer, she has been writing professionally since 2006. She has been published in numerous print and online magazines, specializing in travel, parenting, history and law. Diggs is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Stanford Law School.