How to Write a Will in California

By Fraser Sherman

You can write a will three ways in California. You can pay a lawyer to do it, you can write it yourself or you can download a preprinted form and fill in the blanks.

Do You Need a Will?

If you die intestate -- without a will -- state law decides how to divide up your property. If you're married and childless, for example, California law says your spouse inherits everything. If that's what you want, having a will may not be important, but there are reasons why doing so might make good sense anyway.

•You want to name an executor to manage your estate.

•You'd prefer to divide and distribute your assets differently than California law would do.

•You want to make certain bequests to specific individuals.

•You want to give an inheritance to a friend, a non-registered domestic partner or someone else who can't inherit from you if the distribution is left to state law.

Planning Your Estate

If you decide you need a will, you have decisions to make before you write it. Make a list of your possessions, from the big stuff -- your 401(k), bank accounts, the house -- to things like books, clothes, and DVDs. Decide whether you want to divide up your valuable assets in equal shares or give one heir more than the others. If you want to pas particular assets to someone, such as a personal memento or heirloom jewelry, list them.

Some assets like life insurance proceeds and retirement account assets go to their named beneficiaries regardless of the terms of your will. Keep that in mind when you're writing it -- if one child inherits a $50,000 IRA, you might want to give your other children more in the will to compensate.

Tip

California is a community property state. If you're married, assets you bought during the marriage are owned equally with your spouse. You can bequeath your half of the ownership, but not his.

The Preprinted Form

The pre-printed California will is good for simple estates, according to the State Bar of California. You can name one person to receive the bulk of your estate but also give specific assets or cash amounts to other individuals. If you have a large or complex estate, you may need a lawyer to divide everything up properly. If you later decide to rewrite your form will, crossing things out or making changes to it will invalidate it.

After you make the will, you must date it, sign it and have two witnesses sign it as well. It doesn't have to be notarized.

A Holographic Will

A holographic will has nothing to do with holograms — it's the legal term for a will in your own handwriting. In California, it must be 100 percent in your handwriting, with nothing typed. The writing must be legible. If it meets all these requirements, your holographic will doesn't require any witnesses.

Warning

It's easy to make mistakes with a holographic will, such as not spelling out your wishes clearly. If you're not sure your will says what you want it to say, it's safest to consult a lawyer.

Hiring a Lawyer

Hiring a competent lawyer reduces the risk of errors in your will. You'll still need to plan how you want your property distributed so you can tell the lawyer what you want the will to say. Just as with a preprinted will, it will require two witnesses, but not a notary.

After Drafting

After you write the will, place it somewhere your heirs will be sure to find it. This can be a safe-deposit box one of them has access to or your lawyer's office. Let your heirs know where to look. A will that can't be found is useless.

Review your will periodically to make sure it's up to date. Divorce, a new child or acquiring new assets can all necessitate changes.

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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