We tend to plan for many things in life, such as buying our first house or even saving for a big trip. However, one of the most important things that we should plan for is how our assets, property, or even personal items are distributed when we are no longer on this Earth. While it may be a sad or depressing subject, leaving your loved ones with a last will and testament can be one of the most important things we can do to protect their financial future. Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about making a will in the United States!
What's a Will?
A will is a legal document that designates how the assets of an individual are to be distributed upon their passing. To better understand how a will works, it’s important to learn these key terms:
- Testator: The person who makes the will
- Inheritance: The assets and belongings of the testator at the time of their death
- Beneficiary: The person(s) who receive one, several, or all of the testator's belongings, as assigned in the will
- Executor: The person in charge of carrying out everything outlined in the will, usually performed by a lawyer
The Advantages of Making a Will
Despite popular belief, creating a will and testament can be beneficial to you and your loved ones. Here are some of its advantages.
- It allows you to specify how you wish to carry out your funeral service.
- It can help prevent your loved ones from arguing over how your belongings and assets are to be distributed.
- If you have minor children, you'll be able to specify what you want to happen to them. For example, you can appoint a guardian or leave them a trust fund.
- It gives you the ability to legally name an executor.
What Are the Requirements?
The requirements of creating a will and testament in the United States can vary from state to state. However, the most common are:
- The testator must be at least 18 years of age.
- The testator must be in good mental health.
- All names mentioned on the will must be written exactly as they appear on their birth certificate.
- The will must specify who will be the executor.
- The testator should state that this is their last will and testament and that any other previously written wills will be invalid.
- The will must include personal information about the heir(s), including their full name, telephone number, and address.
- The will should include a complete list of the testator’s assets and belongings and how they will be distributed.
- The testator must sign each page of the will.
- The testator must initial each page of the will.
- The will must be signed by two witnesses (not listed as beneficiaries).
- In order for the will to be valid, it must be notarized.
Keep in mind: It's important to keep the original copy of the will in a safe place (preferably in a safety deposit box).
Types of Wills
There are several types of wills in the United States. The most common are:
The simple will is the most commonly used type of will. In simple wills, the testator must list their assets and name the person(s) who will inherit each specific asset. A simple will must be signed by two witnesses, although some states may require more than two.
Living trust will
Living trust wills are typically used when the testator has real estate and minor or disabled children. In a living trust will, all or a portion of the testator's assets are placed in a trust. The testator can name a person in charge of administering the trust and that person will decide how the estate will be distributed among the testator’s heirs.
The joint will covers the assets of two people (such as a couple or close relatives) who make a single will. In this instance, the two people name each other as their beneficiaries. The first person to die will inherit the estate of the surviving person.
How to Make a Handwritten (Holographic) Will
Did you know that you can leave a handwritten will? Known as a holographic will, these types of wills can be written by hand at home and legally notarized afterward. One of the advantages of a holographic will is that the testator can change it as many times as they deem necessary. However, in order for a holographic will to be valid, it must meet some basic requirements:
- The testator should write everything in their own handwriting.
- The testator should have total mental capacity.
- No blank spaces may be filled in.
Keep in mind: Not all states in the U.S. recognize holographic wills. States that accept it usually require that the document be reviewed and validated by a notary, who will verify the testator's identity and handwriting. Additional requirements may vary from state to state.
Can I Use an Online Template to Make My Will?
Today, there are several “DIY” tools online to help you write and prepare your will without the need for a lawyer or an expert in the field. To start, the will-maker program will run an assessment asking the testator a few questions about their personal situation. Upon completion, the program will create a personalized will document based on standard legal templates. The testator must print, sign, and validate the will as per their state’s laws (typically, the will must include the signatures of two or three witnesses, and must be validated by a licensed notary).
Keep in mind: Online will makers are used to create simple wills. They are a great resource for individuals who do not have many assets in their possession. That being said, if you own several properties, bank accounts, and have multiple heirs, a specialized lawyer may be the best choice for the creation of your willl. This can help guarantee the distribution of your assets and belongings as per your desired last wishes.
Is It Possible to Make a Will without a Lawyer?
As mentioned, there are several tools available to help you write a will without the need for a lawyer. While these will-maker programs can be good options for making a will, it’s always recommended to seek the advice of a lawyer who specializes in inheritance law. Here are two specific situations where a lawyer’s counsel is essential:
You own more than a million dollars in assets
If your estate is worth more than one million dollars, it’s best to seek legal guidance in the preparation of your will. The attorney can be a valuable resource and provide counsel on::
- Navigating you on how to process your life insurance
- Helping your heir(s) avoid paying large amounts in taxes
- Providing advice on what to do with assets in a foreign country, if you have any
- Finding the best way to protect your minor children’s inheritance (such as opening a trust)
Complex family relationships
For individuals with complex family relationships, legal guidance is recommended for the preparation of their last will and testament. Some examples of these complex relationships include those who have been married several times or perhaps someone that wishes to remove a close relative from their list of beneficiaries. In addition, if the testator doesn’t trust their relatives enough to safeguard their will, a lawyer may be able to provide helpful solutions for this situation.
Keep in mind: If any of the situations described above does not apply to you and you want to save yourself any lawyer fees, then your best option may be to make your own will. However, if you have any questions or concerns about the content of your will and how to validate it, consider consulting a lawyer who can give you the advice you need.
How to Make Your Own Will?
Follow the steps below to ensure that you have all the information necessary to execute your last will and testament.
Step 1 — Decide on the best option for you
Remember that there are three main options for making a will: writing it by hand, using a will-maker program, or hiring an attorney. Based on the information we have provided, we're confident that you'll decide which of these options is right for you.
Step 2 — Choose your beneficiaries
Make a specific list of who will be included in your will as a beneficiary. In most cases, the heirs listed are usually close relatives (children, siblings, or parents), however close friends or even charitable organizations may be included. No matter who you chose as a beneficiary, you must explicitly state how your assets will be distributed and you must include their contact information.
If there are certain people in your family who you do not want to be considered as possible beneficiaries, you must outline this request directly in your will.
Step 3 — Specify what each heir will receive
In addition to including the personal information for each beneficiary, you must also specify what each person will receive. This can be a difficult decision to make, especially when you have an extended family or complex family relationships. Nonetheless, it’s important to be as clear as possible and avoid any misunderstandings amongst your beneficiaries in the future.
Step 4 — Choose an executor
Your executor should be someone you completely trust as they will be responsible for carrying out your last will and testament. While your executor can be a trusted family member or friend, it may be more convenient to appoint a lawyer.
Step 5 — Make sure your document is signed correctly
Proper signatures are important components used in validating a will. Remember that your signature must be on every page and that you must also include the signatures of at least two witnesses. The witnesses who sign your will should be people you trust that are not listed as beneficiaries.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much does it cost to make a will in the United States?
The cost of making a will can vary based on how you choose to execute it. For example, if you decide to make a holographic (handwritten) will, the costs can run anywhere between $60 and $120. However, if you decide to hire an attorney, the costs will be significantly higher.
What are the requirements for making a will?
The main requirements to make a will are:
- The testator must be of legal age and mentally sound.
- The testator must be able to write their first and last name(s) correctly.
- The will must mention that it is the most recent and valid version and that previous wills will be invalid.
- The will must include a list of the testator’s assets and information about the beneficiaries.
- The will must be signed by the testator on each page and must also be signed by two or three witnesses.
- The will must specify who will be the executor and must be validated by a notary.
What are the types of wills in the United States?
The three most common types of wills in the United States are:
- Simple Will: The testator lists their assets and names the person(s) who will inherit their assets.
- Living Trust Will: The testator's estate is placed in a trust to protect their children’s future.
- Joint Will: Two people name each other as their beneficiaries.