Writing a will often gets pushed to the tail end of your to-do list for a couple of reasons: No one particularly wants to stare their own mortality in the eye, plus wills have an intimidating reputation as being complicated legal documents. While it’s true that your will must be valid by meeting all your state’s specific requirements before the court can accept it for probate, the rules aren’t really all that complex. If you take your finished draft to a Missouri attorney for review, you can probably rest assured that the court will honor it.
Meet Missouri’s Requirements
You must be at least 18 years old or emancipated from your parents – such as if you married or joined the military before you turned 18 – to make a will in Missouri. You must be of sound mind. The document must be written, meaning typed or printed, and witnessed by two persons. Missouri doesn’t accept handwritten wills.
The state recognizes oral wills, called nuncupative wills, but only under very limited circumstances. You must literally be on your deathbed and speak your wishes aloud to two disinterested witnesses. Then, one of them must commit your wishes to writing within 30 days of your death and submit the statement to the court within six months. Even if you meet all these requirements, you can’t bequeath property worth more than $500 this way.
Choose Beneficiaries for Your Assets
Next you must decide who receives your assets. You can name secondary, or “backup,” beneficiaries in case your first choices predecease you or decline the inheritance for some reason. If you make provisions for this, the gift can revert to your second choice. It’s usually a good idea to specify your beneficiaries by name, not just by their degree of kinship to you.
You might say that you want to leave your prized and valuable stamp collection to your grandson, but if you have three grandsons by the time you pass away, this invites confusion. If you want to leave small items of personal property to certain individuals, Missouri allows you to attach a list to your will, naming them and describing each gift. It must be in your handwriting or, if you print it out, you must sign and date it. You can do this after you write your will or change it later without observing any particular formalities.
Decide Who Will Handle Your Estate
Use your will to name an executor – the person who submits the will for probate and makes sure your wishes are carried out – for your estate. Your executor will be responsible for dealing with your debts and taxes and transferring your property to your beneficiaries. If you have minor children, you can use your will to name a guardian for them.
You might also consider naming someone to handle their inheritances for them until they come of age. You can name the same person to perform both roles. If you don’t express your wishes in the will, the court will appoint persons to these positions, and they may not be the ones you would have chosen.
Gather Your Witnesses
After you write your will, your next challenge is to make sure that it’s properly signed and witnessed. Missouri law requires that two people watch you sign your will and that you must make an oral statement to them saying that this is what you’re signing. Your witnesses must sign your will in your presence.
If one of them is also a beneficiary in your will, you might want to add a third witness. Otherwise, as an “interested” witness, your beneficiary can only receive that which she would have received if you died without a will. This could be significantly less or even nothing at all. If you’re physically incapable of signing your will, you can direct someone to do it for you in the presence of your witnesses. Missouri doesn’t require that your will be notarized.
Consider Seeking Legal Advice
While it's true that you can do your will yourself, consulting with an attorney is always a good idea. This is strongly recommended for families where there are children from a previous marriage and stepparents involved. If any aspect of your will isn't clear, there is a risk that your beneficiaries will disagree, leading to hard feelings and possibly litigation.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.