For simple estates, a pre-printed or "simple" will might be all you need to ensure your wishes are met. Requirements for a valid simple will vary by state to state.
A will is exactly what it sounds like – a stripped down version of a Last Will and Testament. A "simple will" is a form available online or in stationery stores that allows the testator – person making out the will – to simply fill in the blanks, leaving instructions on how to administer an uncomplicated estate after his death. Though a simple will can be made without the advice of an attorney, non-professionals should understand that state law may impose limitations on how you dispose of your assets.
Say Who You Are
Start by identifying yourself. It might sound obvious, but one of the required elements is that the testator must be clearly identified. In addition to your name, a simple will probably has room for you to include your address, or at least city and state, date of birth, and the name of your spouse, if you're married.
Say What You're Doing
A second essential element of a valid will is what's called the "statement of intent." This means that your will identifies itself as such, and states that you as the testator are drafting the document freely and willingly. A pre-printed simple will should already have this language present, but it's a good idea to make sure. This portion of the text establishes that the document is in fact a will, created purposefully with the intent to instruct the distribution of assets.
Say Who Will Carry out Your Wishes
Next, name an executor to see the provisions of your will carried out. Appointing someone executor of your estate with a simple will is as easy as writing their name on a line, but you should discuss the matter with that person first. The proposed executor should be aware of the nomination in your will, should willingly accept the responsibility and should understand your general intent in the distribution of assets. Just to be safe, you'll probably also need to nominate a backup executor in case your first choice is unavailable when the time comes.
Say What Happens With Your Kids
Lay out a formal plan for the care of any dependent children. Money is money, but probably the most valuable asset a person has is his children. Though your instructions in a will might not be absolutely binding on a court down the road, it's important that you, as the parent, set forth your intent as to who should care for your minor children, if any, after you're gone. As with the executor, this person should be aware of his designation and accept it freely. It's also important to assign a significant portion of your estate assets to the person who would take on the burden of raising your children in your absence.
Say Who Gets What
Identify assets and beneficiaries. The format of simple wills when it comes to distributing assets varies. Some have space for the identification of specific property and the name of its intended beneficiary. This can be complicated, however, because if there are creditors to an estate, property can be liquidated before it is available to beneficiaries. Thus, many simple wills set out a percentage scheme for the distribution of assets and leave it to the beneficiaries and executor to determine how to split the property so each beneficiary gets their appointed share. It's important to know that most states' laws on estate transfers make it mandatory to support your spouse and dependent children adequately, and if necessary this will take precedence over the wishes stated in your will.
Make it Legal
The final essential ingredient of a valid will is that it be duly witnessed. The specific requirements vary by state, with some states requiring two witnesses who won't benefit from the will, some requiring three and others none. Even when no witnesses are required under state statute, it's wise to have witnesses sign the will as this will make the probate process easier and faster.
Some states also stipulate that the document must be notarized. The will does not need to be filed anywhere after it is executed, but it should be stored in a safe place where the named executor or other responsible persons can easily find it.
Some states, such as California, provide a statutory will form ready for you to use. However, for any estate that involves significant real property, jointly held property, small businesses, multiple beneficiaries or other complicated issues, it's wise to consult with a qualified estate attorney.
- University of Hawai'i William S. Richardson School of Law: Researching How to Write Your Own Will, A Pathfinder for Patrons Who Are not Lawyers
- FindLaw: Sample Basic Will (Annotated)
- The State Bar of California: Simple Will (Statutory Form)
- The State Bar of California: California Statutory Will California Probate Court, Section 6240
- Jonathunder (CC-By-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.5)