Let's face it: creating a will isn't very high on many people's to-do list. That probably explains why 70% of Americans don't have one. Confronting our mortality can be uncomfortable, and it's easy to put it off.
But the truth is making a will isn't as expensive or time-consuming as most people think. And your loved ones are counting on you to make a will, even if they don't know it. Creating a will prevents family conflict, eliminates confusion, and ensures your assets go to the people you most want to have them. In short, a will gives you control over your legacy.
Making a free will
So how do you make a will? The process is quite simple — most people don't even need a lawyer.
How to make a will
1. Decide which type of will you need.
There are several types of wills, but a simple will, or last will and testament, is enough for most people. If you're unsure, you can review the different types of wills and determine which is best for you.
If you have a lot of assets, own a business, or have a complicated estate, a living trust might be a better option for you. An estate attorney could help with this decision.
2. Decide what assets to include in your will.
As you're writing your will, make a list of all the items and accounts you own. These are your assets, and in the next step you'll decide who you want to have these assets when you're gone. This list should include:
- Property, like your home, vehicles, and other real estate you own
- Bank and retirement accounts
- Life insurance policies
- Pets: Most people think of their pets as part of their family, but they're considered property under the law. Be sure to name a trusted caretaker for your pet in your will.
- Family heirlooms or personal items: If you have valuable or sentimental items that are important to you — your grandmother's old tea set, vintage jewelry, or anything else — you can designate them to specific people in your will. That way, your loved ones know exactly what's important to you and where you want it to go once you're gone.
3. Choose who will receive your assets.
Once you've created a list of all your assets, it's time to choose who you want to receive each of them after you pass. These recipients are called beneficiaries. If you have a family, you may simply wish to leave everything to your spouse and children. But your beneficiaries could also include extended family, friends, and even charities that matter to you.
In your will, you should explicitly state who you want to receive each of your assets. Be specific! Your loved ones will appreciate having your instructions during what will likely be a difficult time for them. And if your will goes through probate court, specificity will help. Some people choose to ask for input from their loved ones while making their wills, especially for items that can't be split (like family heirlooms or property). Telling your loved ones exactly what they can expect from your will can prevent confusion or surprise down the road.
One important thing to know: The beneficiaries you name in your last will and testament can't override what's on a deed or title. For example, if both you and your spouse's name are on your house deed, the house would belong to your spouse once you pass, even if you try to designate it to someone else in your will. This is also true for direct beneficiaries you name on assets like your life insurance policy or 401(k) accounts.
4. Choose your will executor.
The executor of your will is the person who will read your will and carry out your final wishes. They'll distribute property to your beneficiaries, pay any debts you may have, and more.
To nominate an executor, simply state their name in your will. You should choose someone reliable, organized, and trustworthy, because it can be a complicated job with many responsibilities. Many people nominate their spouse, adult child, or a trusted friend to fill the role — just keep in mind this may add an extra burden while they are grieving. You could also choose an accountant or attorney, and pay them a fee that comes directly out of your estate.
Acting as a will executor is a big duty. Once you decide on an executor, it's important to let them know, so you can be sure they're willing to take on the task before you appoint them in your will. You can also name a backup executor, in case your primary is unable or unwilling to fulfill the role when the time comes.
5. Choose guardians for your minor children.
If you have children who are under 18, you should choose a guardian for them in your will. When you pass, your child's other parent will usually get sole legal guardianship. But if you both pass at the same time, you can use your will to nominate a guardian for your kids.
Being a guardian is a huge undertaking, so have a discussion with your nominated guardian and make sure they're up to the task. This should be someone you trust to raise your children the way you'd want them raised. Just like with an executor, you can name a backup guardian in case your first is unable to fulfill their role. Some people set aside money for their appointed guardians, to help with the financial cost of adding more children to their household.
Appointing a guardian for your underage children may be one of the most important things you do in your will. If you die without nominating a guardian, and your child's other parent can't care for them, the court will choose a guardian for you. If there are no volunteers, your child may become a ward of the state and enter the foster care system.
6. Make a donation to charity.
This step is optional, but you can include nonprofit organizations as beneficiaries in your will. You can leave many kinds of assets to charity — this includes real estate, personal property, part of your life insurance policy, or investments. In FreeWill's free online will form, there's an optional section where you can easily add your favorite charities as beneficiaries in your will.
7. Sign your will in front of witnesses to make it legally valid.
This step is important: Once you finish filling out your will, you must sign it in your own handwriting to make it legally valid. Most states require that you sign your will in front of two witnesses, who will also sign your will. Your witnesses can't be your executor, guardians, or anyone who inherits something from your will. But they could be roommates, neighbors, or other friends.
Learn more about how to witness and notarize your estate-planning documents. If you make your will on FreeWill, we provide you with specific instructions on how to make your will legally valid.
8. Store your will in a safe place.
Once you and your witnesses have signed your will, you should store it in a safe and easy-to-find place. This could be in a fireproof safe in your home, a safe deposit box, or at a trusted attorney's office.
In addition to your will, you should collect other important estate planning documents and store them in the same place. This includes titles and deeds, life insurance policy information, funeral instructions, and online password information. This makes it easy for your will executor to find all your important documents after you pass.
9. Tell your executor and loved ones where your will documents are and how to access them.
Your will is only helpful if your loved ones can find it. Once you store all your estate planning documents, let your will executor and family know exactly where they are and how to access them.
10. Update your will whenever you have a big life change.
Generally, you should update your will every five years, or whenever you have a qualifying life event. This includes:
- Getting married or divorced
- Having children or grandchildren
- Buying a house
- Moving states (since will requirements vary from state to state)
- If one of your beneficiaries or executors passes away
Making a will is the best way to protect your loved ones and contribute to the people and causes you love the most. With FreeWill, you can securely create your will for free online.