Fill-in-the-blanks templates for self-prepared wills are easy to find – state-specific examples are available online or can be purchased from some stationery stores. It’s not always a good idea to write a will without legal assistance, however, since it’s easy to get things wrong, which can affect family members down the line.
Rules for Writing Wills
Some states permit handwritten wills so in theory, a will maker could scribble his last wishes on a piece of paper – at least in states where handwritten, or holographic, wills are accepted. This is a poor choice for almost everyone since handwritten wills are intended to be the will of last resort in emergency situations, for example, when someone is rushed into the hospital. The first rule, then, is to ensure the will is typed up and legible.
Beyond that, each state has its own rules for effectively making wills, and the will maker, known as the testator, must look up the rules for his state. Broadly, a will is valid if it meets certain requirements, which include:
- The will maker, known as the testator, must be over the age of 18 and of sound mind, meaning he knows what he's doing and there’s no reason to call his mental health into question.
- The document must be identifiable as the testator’s last will, which usually means it must be dated. If the testator has made several wills in his lifetime, then the most recent will takes priority.
- The testator must sign the will.
- The signature must be witnessed by at least two disinterested witnesses, who must add their names, addresses and signatures.
- In some states, the will must be notarized.
If the will misses any of the requirements laid down by state law, then it will not be valid and it will not pass through probate. This could have serious consequences for friends and loved ones who may not inherit what the testator intended them to receive.
Who Should Write a Quick Will?
Generally, a person should write a quick will only if her wishes are simple and her financial situation is not complicated such as if the testator wants to leave everything to her spouse, and if the spouse dies first, then she wants to leave everything to her children.
For situations more complicated than that – if there are prior divorces, stepchildren, grandchildren, foreign investments, family trusts or high-value properties, for instance – then it’s essential to seek professional help. An attorney can help ensure that minor children and other dependents are properly looked after and efficient structures are put in place to minimize tax liabilities.
Using a Will Template
There are standard ways of writing wills and the language may seem unusual to non-lawyers. It’s a good idea, then, to download a template that has the standard language already written into the document. Some probate courts provide will templates online through their websites and/or at the courthouse. All the testator then has to do is fill out the missing information. Generally, this will include:
- Listing the testator’s full name, address and birth date to identify the testator.
- Naming an executor (called a personal representative in some states) to carry out the testator’s instructions after death. This person will be responsible for determining if probate is necessary, managing and selling assets, paying bills and taxes, closing bank accounts and distributing property and assets to the beneficiaries per the will’s instructions. He should be someone the testator knows and trusts.
- Naming a guardian for minor children
- Listing any specific gifts, for example, “I leave my Rolex watch to my nephew, John Smith.”
- Naming the person who will receive the residue of the estate, which is everything that’s left over after the specific gifts have been made. Usually, this is the testator’s spouse and/or children.
- Signing, dating, witnessing and notarizing the will in accordance with state law.