5 things to know before writing your own will—without spending a fortune, according to an estate planning expert

(Photo: Twenty20 | Masaki)

You may think that wills are only for rich people with assets or kids. Or maybe you're young and feel like you have plenty of time before you need to start writing one.

But life is unpredictable and families are messy. And as much as I, and let's assume you, would like to believe that death is for other people, it will happen, ready or not.

If you don't have a will, that means you haven't designated anyone to take care of your assets after you die. So the state will decide these things for you, as well as where your money goes.

Just one in three Americans over 18 has a will, according to's 2020 Estate Planning and Wills survey, and only half of those over age 55 have one. But any adult can benefit from having a will, even if it's just to make things easier for those left behind at a very difficult time.

Wills don't have to be complicated; you can write your own without having to spend a fortune. Here what to know before you start:

1. Think about who and what are important to you

Begin by asking yourself some philosophical questions: What are your values? What's important? What are you grateful for?

Review your life and determine who and what matters. A look at where you spend and have spent your time and money may reveal what you value. 

For most people, their priorities are to take care of their spouse or partner first, their kids and grandkids next, and finally, their causes. 

2. Make a list of your assets

After outlining what matters, take an inventory of all you own and all you owe. List every asset, including real estate, bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts, stocks, pensions and life-insurance policies. Don't forget to include fine jewelry, artwork and collectibles.

Put this list of assets and liabilities together with the contact information for any legal or financial advisors. Include safe deposit box information and a list of usernames and passwords to access important information locked in your mobile phone or computer.

Store these items together in one place along with your will. Then be sure the right people know where to find it.

3. Choose someone to be in charge

Every will needs an executor, or a personal representative who is named in the will as the one in charge of carrying out what the will says.

Choose someone who is trustworthy and fair. Ask, don't assume, that the person you've named to be executor of your will or the guardian of your children is willing. Talk to them about the responsibility.

Also talk to those who you are leaving things to about how assets will be divided and distributed, and why. Field questions and eliminate surprises.  

4. There are several ways to create a will

Hiring a lawyer to help draft your will can help avoid confusion, infighting, or even lawsuits.

Attorney-drafted wills are especially important where blended families and significant assets are involved. But this can cost between a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, or more, depending on the complexities and the lawyer.

Luckily, wills come in various forms, such as a handwritten one. In at least half of U.S. states, a will that is handwritten and signed (called a holographic will) is considered valid. Check with an attorney where you live to see if your state is one of them, and whether you need to have the document notarized or witnessed to make it valid in your state. 

Another is an online will. Free, fill-in-the-blank wills specific to your state are available online through sites like eForms. These wills are a good starting point, as they get you thinking about what to address. For a small fee, you can also use a LegalZoom document.

Once completed, having an attorney review the document is still a good idea. Be sure you print it out, sign it, have it witnessed and validated by a notary, and that your loved ones know where to find it.

5. Don't just phone it in

Not to blow this out of proportion, but creating a will is a chance leave your mark. Too many people don't step up, and when they do, they create a hasty document (which, again, is better than nothing) and just fill in the blanks.

Be thoughtful. Be intentional. You can always change it as life changes. But have one. You only get one legacy. 

Marni Jameson is a writer and estate planning expert. She is also the author of "What to Do With Everything You Own to Leave the Legacy You Want" and "Downsizing the Blended Home: When Two Households Become One." Marni has written for several publications, including The Los Angeles Times, Parents, Women's Day and Family Circle.

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