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How to Make a Will Step-by-Step

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If you’re like most people, the idea of sitting down to write a will probably brings up some unpleasant thoughts. Like, Do I really have to think about life coming to an end?

It can be a little depressing. I get that!

But the thoughts that get most people motivated to make a will are along the lines of: What if the worst happens? What would happen to my spouse? Who’s going to take care of my kids and divide up my stuff? How would the people I love most know what to do?

Here’s the deal: Refusing to write a will doesn’t magically make you live forever. (Shocker, I know.) On the other hand, making a will isn’t a death sentence! All it does is give you control over how your estate is managed after you’re gone—and making a will won’t break the bank.

The truth is, writing a will is pretty straightforward, especially if you use a simple will template. Look, I know how hard it can be getting intentional about end-of-life stuff—so I’m going to walk you through the basic steps of writing a will, then we’ll look at your options to get it done.

 

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What Is a Will?

We can’t jump straight into the steps for how to write a will before first touching on what a will is.

A will is a legal document that answers the question, “What do you want to happen when you die?” Your will lays out things like:

  • Who you’d like to get your money and property
  • Who should become the guardian of your kids or pets
  • Who gets to be the executor to manage your estate when you’re gone
  • How to handle burial and funeral wishes (like if you want to be laid to rest next to a certain family member or in a special family plot)

To serve as a valid will, these things have to be true about your document:

  • You must be 18 years of age or older and of sound mind when you create it.
  • You’ll need to sign and date the will in front of witnesses, and they must also be 18 years of age or older (I’ll get into more details about this a little later).
  • Heirs of the will cannot be witnesses.
  • While a typewritten document is universally accepted, about half of U.S. states also allow what’s known as a holographic will—that’s a fancy term for “handwritten.”

Please don’t get confused—yes, there are many different types of wills, but a simple will (yeah, that’s the legal term for the most basic kind of will) is enough for most people. In fact, the simple will we’ll focus on here is all most people need to set up a solid estate plan that protects their family (and their wishes) when they pass away. Don’t let fear keep you from getting this done!

How to Make a Will

1. Decide what to include in your will.

It’s time to think specifically about your belongings, savings and estate. (If you have stuff, you have an estate.) Go ahead and pull together the paperwork for your home and any other real property (land and buildings), and personal property (clothes, home furnishings and furniture, automobiles, etc.)—you own, along with life insurance policies and bank and retirement accounts.

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Do you have a car, beloved pet, or Friends DVD collection you want to go to a specific person? Include it in your will. This will help your executor (the person who carries out the wishes in your will) when it’s time to distribute your assets (aka your stuff) and save your family from unnecessary stress.

By the way, two things can happen to any property that you do not specify in your will. If you include a general provision, you can state that you want everything not otherwise mentioned to go to a particular heir, charity or the estate. But if you leave that out (and why would you?), it will all be subject to your state’s intestacy laws.

2. Decide who gets what.

This isn’t a time for guesses. Who do you want to get your stuff? Think about your spouse, your kids and your extended family. Get specific and decide who gets (or takes care of) what.

If you’re happy with it all going to your spouse, that’s awesome. But making a will also gives you the chance to decide what, if anything, you want other loved ones to get too.

Whether it’s one or 20, write down the names of all the people you want to get your belongings. Then think about how you want to divide up your assets and estate.

You could leave an equal percentage or set dollar amount to each of your children. You could decide to leave a chunk to charity. And there could even be special items you want to leave to certain people—like the vintage dresses your daughter used to play dress-up (without permission). Now is the time to record those gifts.

Here’s a tip: There’s a difference between heirs and beneficiaries. Real and/or personal property goes to heirs. But money from things like life insurance policies, investment accounts and trusts goes to beneficiaries (people or entities). You name your beneficiaries when you open the account or buy the life insurance policy. And—this is important: Your will doesn’t cancel out the selections you made.

And remember: A will doesn’t override other types of ownership already set in place. If you and your spouse own a home, depending on how you guys hold the title, it may go to your spouse automatically. If you want it to go to someone else, you’d have to change the deed.

3. Choose an executor for your will.

The executor is the person you appoint to make sure your wishes, as you write them in your will, are carried out. They’ll be responsible for paying off all your debts with the funds in your estate, having any property appraised and sold if necessary, delivering property to your heirs, including all those special gifts (like your pet or the vintage dresses), and reporting to the probate court as required so your estate can be settled and closed.

Your executor should be a level-headed, ethical and responsible person you trust—someone who isn’t intimidated by strong-willed family members! (We all have one—and if you can’t think who yours is, it’s you!) You may want to choose one of your adult children, a family friend, or an attorney to take on the job. Attorneys are usually paid out of the funds in the estate, and each state has specific laws about how to handle their fees.

4. Name guardians for your children.

If you have children who are minors, you’ll need to name their guardians in your will. These are the folks who will take charge of your most important legacy—your kids—when you’re gone.

If you don’t do this, your kids could end up being placed by the state—probably not what you want at all. I have three kids and I couldn’t imagine the state deciding who takes care of them! Don’t leave a decision like that in the hands of anyone but you.

Of course, guardians should be people you trust. But before you settle on someone, talk to them to be sure they’re able (and willing) to take on the responsibility of raising your kids. Some people even set aside money for the guardians in their will to help with the expense of taking more people into their household.

Pro tip for this step: Don’t forget to give the guardians access and authority after you die to work with any insurance or savings accounts you’ve set up for your kids. This includes things like a college fund or an account for their first car. That way you know the money will be used for what it’s meant for. This is where trusts come into play.

5. Sign your will in front of witnesses and a notary public.

This bit is one of the most important! A written will is not valid in most states unless it’s signed and dated by the one who’s writing the will (yep, that’s you) and two witnesses. Surely you have two friends willing to watch you sign a piece of paper.

Even though witnesses can’t be people who could inherit anything from your will, they should be people you know quite well. That’s because after you die, if someone challenges your will, they could be called to appear in court to confirm three things:

  • They saw you sign your will.
  • No one forced you to sign it.
  • You were of sound mind when you signed it (as in, you understood what property you owned, who your heirs were, and that what you were signing was your will).

One way for your witnesses to avoid a trip to court is by making a self-proving affidavit, which is required by some states. Self-proving what? A self-proving affidavit is just a notarized document that confirms these things: Your witnesses saw you sign the will, and you signed it willingly and in your right mind. It acts as their testimony, so if your will ends up in court for any reason, they won’t need to appear. If you choose to do this, make sure you don’t sign the will until you’re in front of both your witnesses and the notary public.

6. Let everyone know beforehand.

It’s a good idea to alert everyone involved and included in your will ahead of time. For the executor and guardians, get their permission before tagging them with these responsibilities. They need to be capable (and willing) to take them on. (Overseeing an estate is a big job.)

And remove the mystery of what’s in your will by letting your heirs and beneficiaries know what’s coming their way before you’re gone. Trust me: Taking away the element of surprise could save some heartache for them later on. It’s peace of mind for everyone involved—especially you!

If you end up changing the will later, make sure you update everyone involved on the changes, otherwise they may try to challenge the new will after you die.

7. Store your will in a legacy drawer.

I recommend you put together a legacy drawer to store your will and other important documents. This can be a waterproof and fireproof file box or folder that holds the documents your family would need if something happened to you. If you store your important documents in a safe-deposit box at a bank or credit union, be sure to state in your will that your executor has the authority to enter your safe-deposit box. Include the name of the bank, the box number, and the location of the key.

But time out, y’all. We live in an increasingly digital world, right? So it might make sense to have a digital version of your legacy drawer. Make sure you’re storing your documents somewhere safe, like a trusted digital storage platform or a personal file on your computer.

If you choose to create a digital legacy drawer, just remember you must keep the original notarized copy of your will and other documents like powers of attorney because most courts require the original document to be filed when the estate process starts.

Regardless of whether your legacy drawer is physical or digital (or both), make sure you include the most up-to-date version of your will (signed and witnessed), estate plans, insurance policies, bank account details and passwords, tax returns, funeral instructions, and anything else you think your family will need to know.

8. Consider writing a letter with your will.

If you want to pass on words of encouragement and love or even instructions to your heirs, write a letter to go with your will. It will mean a lot to your family and friends. Your words will help them as they try to honor your wishes—especially if you’ve chosen an executor for their no-nonsense personality. Remember though, nothing in your letter should contradict your will.

Hopefully you’ve already had a chance to tell your kids and loved ones what you’re leaving them in your will so there are no surprises, but a letter is a good chance to speak to them one last time and reiterate anything that’s really important to you.

9. Update your will as needed.

Once you’ve made a will, you can revisit and update it as your life changes—because life happens. You could move to another state, have more children, adopt a child, go through a divorce and remarry, or make adjustments to your will because one of your heirs has died. Even if you don’t think your will needs updating, it’s a good idea to read it over every few years anyway—just to refresh your memory.

If you have major changes, it’s best to create a new will. After you sign the new document, be sure to securely get rid of your old one (I’d run that thing through the shredder). And if you gave copies to anyone else, be sure you’re the one who shreds those too. That’s the only way to guarantee there won’t be any confusion over which one is the right will.

Now let’s say you want to cancel your will. All that means is you no longer want your will to be valid or effective if you die. It definitely happens! You can do that anytime after you create your will.

Each state has different rules for how to cancel a will (like shredding, burning and tearing). You’ll want to check with your state’s laws to find out how to legally cancel your will.

 

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Why Making a Will Is Important

If nine steps to making a will seems like a lot, just keep in mind why you’re doing this. Creating a will is important because it’s one of the last things you can do for your family after you’re gone. As they’re grieving your loss, they won’t have to guess what you wanted—and they won’t have to deal with the stress (and expense) of fighting in court over your stuff. And if you die without a will? There’s no guarantee your wishes will be known or followed.

Learn How to Make a Will Without a Lawyer

Making a will is easier than you might think. And if your estate is modest, you can probably skip the attorney (hooray . . . no hourly rates!) and use a simple will template. Take our quick, easy quiz to find out if a state-specific template will work for you.

There are some situations when you might need an attorney’s help. Here are a few examples:

  • You have a large estate, you’re concerned about tax consequences, and you’re thinking of putting your estate in a trust
  • You have assets in a different country
  • You want to exclude someone from your will
  • You want to disinherit someone from an existing will
  • You have a special-needs child who will need financial support, medical care, or assistance with physical needs for their lifetime

Those situations can get complex—so you should probably work with an attorney.

But if you’re looking for instructions on how to make a will without a lawyer, I’ve got you covered. You can create a simple will to take care of the basics, and you can do it all online. Awesome, right? With the required signatures, a will made online is just as legal as one produced by a lawyer.

 

Grab Your Complete Guide to Estate Planning

 

How to Make a Will Online

Making a will online may be the easiest and most cost-effective way to protect your loved ones when you’re gone. If you decide a simple online will is right for you, I recommend you start by finding a reputable online company that offers a will specific to your state and then create one tailored to your needs.

A good online service will also give you the chance to set up your durable powers of attorney, like a financial power of attorney and medical power of attorney, at the same time you write your will—another one of those grown-up responsibilities.

Remember, making a will protects those you love at a time when they’re grieving. Leave a legacy of intentionality and generosity today by creating your online will with RamseyTrusted provider Mama Bear Legal Forms.

 

Next Steps

Now that you know all about how to make a will, here are some steps you can do right away to take care of your family (and your stuff).

  • If you want to get really specific about the legal details and find out if you can make your will without using an attorney, go take our wills quiz right now.
  • Start thinking about the basics of your will, like who you’d leave things to, what you’d like to give them, potential guardians for your minor children, and who can serve as your executor of estate. And be sure to discuss all of these questions with your spouse.
  • If you want more information before jumping right into making your will, learn more by reading our Estate Planning Guide.
  • If you’re ready to make your will, use this online will-maker from our RamseyTrusted partner Mama Bear Legal Forms.

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A will—or last will and testament—is a signed, legally binding document that describes exactly how you want your assets (like property, bank accounts and other things you own) to be handled after you die. Wills are the cornerstone of estate planning.

One of the most important differences between trusts and wills is the ability to name a guardian for your minor children. You can name a legal guardian in your will, but you can’t in a trust. So even if you have a trust, you still need a will to make sure your kids are taken care of after you die. Another important distinction between the two is that, unlike a will, a trust lets you skip probate court.

The cost of a will varies from free to thousands of dollars. On average, a flat fee for a simple will is about $300. But every will is unique, and several factors affect your price: where you live, the value of your estate, if you use an attorney, and your attorney’s experience level and pricing method (flat fee or hourly). Using a will template or making one online are two inexpensive options.

There are usually eight steps to take (or at least consider) when you set up a will:

  1. Decide what to include.
  2. Decide who gets what.
  3. Choose an executor.
  4. Name guardians for your children.
  5. Sign your will in front of witnesses and a notary.
  6. Let everyone know beforehand (executor, guardians, beneficiaries).
  7. Store your will in a legacy drawer (see the next FAQ).
  8. Consider writing a letter of instruction with your will. It’s just an informal document where you can share personal instructions that aren’t included in your will. While it has no legal authority, it can make things easier on your family by spelling out your special wishes.

Along with the rest of your important documents, your legacy drawer is exactly where to keep a will. It’s the ideal way to keep documents organized so your family can find the ones they need if something happens to you. While this part of planning for the future isn’t as fun as setting up that next dream vacation, it’s definitely a task that’s worth its weight in gold.

Having your legacy drawer set up eliminates a whole lot of added stress and confusion at a time when tensions are already running high. Whether your legacy drawer is an actual drawer or a digital file, you’ll want everything to be easy to access and organized in one place.

We know you and your spouse love each other—but as individual adults, each of you needs your own will. Sharing a will isn’t a good idea. Using one will for both spouses used to be pretty common through a form known as a joint will.

But the problem with a joint will is that it’s impossible for the surviving spouse to change the will after one spouse dies. To avoid this, you and your spouse need mirror wills—they’re almost exact duplicates of each other and give you the flexibility for future estate planning if one of you dies.

There’s no legal limit on how many times you can revise your will. You should update your will any time there’s a big change in your life. Here are eight life events when we recommend changing your will for:

  • Getting married
  • Having a child
  • Children becoming legal adults
  • Going through a divorce
  • Losing someone close to you
  • Changing assets
  • Moving to a new state
  • Changing your mind

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Rachel Cruze

About the author

Rachel Cruze

Rachel Cruze is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, financial expert, host of The Rachel Cruze Show, and co-host of Smart Money Happy Hour. Rachel writes and speaks on personal finance, budgeting, investing and money trends. As a co-host of The Ramsey Show, America’s second-largest talk radio show, Rachel reaches millions of weekly listeners with her personal finance advice. She’s appeared on Good Morning America and Fox News and been featured in TIME, REAL SIMPLE and Women’s Health, among others. Through her shows, books, syndicated columns and speaking events, Rachel shares fun, practical ways to take control of your money and create a life you love. Learn More.

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