Perfection is sometimes the enemy of complete. This is definitely the case with personal finance, life insurance, and estate planning.
Statistics show most people (54%) do not have a proper last will and testament, one of the most important documents you will ever complete.
Since I’d rather see more of you have something (rather than nothing), I’m going to present the steps to making a last will and testament using forms you can download for free.
Of course, I’m not a lawyer and nothing here should be considered real, legal advice. But if you want legal advice right now, checkout Just Answer—they have experts available 24/7.
Ask a question and have them answered by verified experts who are available 24/7 and ready to answer online or by phone. Save time and money with Just Answer -- their rates are a fraction of an in-person appointment.
Table of Contents
What is a Last Will and Testament?
Your will is your last opportunity to express your wishes when it comes to your property, your money, and your children if they are minors, when you pass away. It explains how you want to disburse your assets, to whom, under what restrictions and conditions, and when.
There are many other reasons you need a will which I will get into below. But, creating a will can get a little confusing, especially if you have a large estate or many heirs.
While there are many professionals out there who are willing to help you complete your will, they can be expensive—especially if you need to customize it quite a bit.
The good news is you can write your own will for a fraction of the cost by using free form generators. There are dozens of generic, free form generators out there which will give you the backbone you need to structure your will appropriately.
While using a free will form isn’t required, it does make writing your will significantly easier than trying to draw one up from scratch.
If you are married, find the form which accommodates both of your wishes and has paragraphs dedicated to the care of minor children, if you have them.
Download or Create a Free Last Will and Testament
Here are a few I highly recommend:
Fabric is my recommended partner, and the process can take as a little as just 5 minutes.
Law Depot is another great tool provider to help you navigate the construction of your last will and testament.
Once you have your free will form downloaded and ready, follow these seven steps.
Again, when filling out the form(s), the more assets your estate has and the larger your family or network of heirs is, the more complex and time consuming it can be.
7 Super Simple Steps to Completing Your Will
1. Include personally identifying information.
You need to make sure there is no question the will you are creating is yours.
On most free will forms, you will have the opportunity to fill in your name and your address, but you should also include your social security number and/or driver’s license number.
If you have a passport or other government issued ID, these can be great additions, too.
The addition of these key pieces of information makes it clear the will belongs to you.
If your form does not have the appropriate space designated for this information, write it in alongside your name and address.
2. Include a statement about your age and mental status.
Again, your free will template will have already included this information in the standard verbiage, so you will only need to validate this information is there. It is usually located in the first paragraph after your name.
If your template does not include a statement indicating you are of the age of majority and are of sound mind and body, either write it in or download a new form.
What this section means is you were of clear conscience when drafting the will, and not under in the influence, persuaded, or coerced. If there is ever suspicion of this type of thing, it can invalidate the will.
3. Designate an executor.
Your executor is the person who you trust to read your will and ensure your final wishes are carried out.
In a free Will form, this should be located somewhere in the standard verbiage and should include a space for you to write in the name of your executor.
I also suggest having a backup or two, in the event the executor pre-deceases you.
4. Decide who will take care of your children.
If you have minor children at home, it is important to designate who will take care of them after you are gone.
Locate the paragraph of the form which deals with the care of minor children and fill in the name of the person(s) you are designating to care for your children after you have passed on.
It is also important to make sure you and your designee have spoken about your wishes and are in agreement well before you name them in your will.
As above, having a backup in place is a good idea so you know who your children will be with should the designee pre-decease you.
5. Choose your beneficiaries.
In your free Will form, you will have the opportunity to list the specific property and who will get these items when you pass on.
It is important if you have specific wishes for certain personal items that you list them here; if you don’t, those items may go to the wrong people, or to the state.
A lot of family strife can be avoided by making sure you document what items you wish to go to who, and that they are distinctly laid out in your will.
If you run out of space on your free will form, add a second sheet of paper.
6. List your funeral details.
This is another very important aspect of your will as it will help your family members deal with your final arrangements. This is not something you want your family to have to deal with when they need the time to grieve.
I suggest visiting a funeral home and create a list of everything which needs to be decided when you pass away so each of these things can be addressed in your will.
This will make sure your final wishes are honored and the burden is removed from your grieving family members.
This is also the opportunity for you to list end of life requests such as whether or not you would want to be kept alive by artificial means, etc.
7. Sign and date your last will and testament.
This should be done with two witnesses present as they will need to sign the will as well. You won’t have to get a notary to sign it unless you wish to have this person as a witness.
Having a notary sign the will can be a huge help in the event you believe there will be some conflict with regard to your final wishes.
Keep in mind, your witnesses cannot be named as beneficiaries in the will, so choose your witnesses carefully.
When You Need Revisions to Your Will
Sometimes, life changes. But not every single event triggers a need to modify your existing will.
Here is a short list of life events which might.
Your children are now over 18.
I wrote our first will after our oldest child was born.
Since we live several hours away from our closest family members, if something were to happen to both of us, the state of Texas would decide who would take care of our child, even if temporarily.
While it’s unlikely two parents would die at the same time, I sleep better at night knowing my wife and I have decided ahead of time who will take care of our children in that unlikely event.
Of course, when our youngest child hits 18 years of age, this type of situation wouldn’t occur the same way.
Your executor is incapacitated or deceased.
In general, a surviving spouse will be the first choice, followed by adult children or other family members if you originally listed them.
Since the executor has control over your estate, it could be disastrous if the court appoints someone who can’t handle the job—if the executor(s) you chose are no longer able to execute what is asked, the court is forced to.
If you’ve only ever listed one person, such as your spouse, and they have passed away, you need a revision. I always suggest a primary, secondary, and even tertiary, if possible.
The blending of families.
Without a will, it is up to the state to decide what happens to your property, and this generally means your next of kin will get everything.
Individuals in blended families have to be particularly cautious since a death in the family often brings about ugly confrontations and reneged promises. This can be avoided if those promises are legally binding through a well-written will.
If you’re in a situation with blended families, and issues have arisen for any reason, be sure to consider and update to your will.
Your marital status changes.
Getting married is a very common triggering event for writing a will, but it’s important to remember that getting divorced, remarried, or buying a home with a long-term partner you are not married to are also good times to write or revisit a will.
Any time you have a marital change, both you and your previous partners or spouse will need to update (or add) a will.
You have (more) children.
Making sure your children will be taken care of no matter what happens to you is an excellent reason to write a will.
Updating your will with each new birth—even though most boilerplate wills cover the possibility you might have more children—is also a good idea.
This is especially the case if something would not be equally distributed (an instance of this might be one child passing the age of majority but the younger child(ren) have not), or if you didn’t previously have children.
You start a business.
No matter how you set up your business, this can have major consequences for your estate when you pass away.
If you own a business, you need to draft a will. If you have business partners, you all need to have a will, and even consider a buy/sell agreement.
You sell or purchase a house.
A house is a major asset, and it’s important your estate plan covers the distribution of your major assets.
If you buy or sell a home, a vacation home, or even other large assets like vehicles, RVs, or boats, you may want to consider a revision.
You haven’t updated your will in the last five years.
Things change over time, including health, relationships, finances, and local and national laws.
Everyone should revisit their wills every five years to make sure their estate plans still reflect their priorities.
What Else Might You Need?
Most people know and understand the role of a last will, or at least they think they do, but this doesn’t stop a majority of Americans from not having a will.
A last will and testament is the cornerstone and most critical piece of a person’s estate plan. And, it is more than instructions on who gets your worldly possessions.
However, a will is not the only estate planning document you need.
A Living Will
The next item on your estate planning checklist should be a living will.
No one thinks they will become disabled in their lifetime. No one thinks they will need their loved ones to make the tough choices at the hospital, such as how long to stay on a respirator.
But, in the event this does occur, a living will help take the guesswork and the guilt out of your loved one’s hands.
It spells out exactly what life-sustaining medical treatment you want to take place should you become incapacitated.
A living will is your written instructions on the type of life-sustaining medical treatment you desire and the length of time you want it. It instructs your loved ones and your doctors with your wishes even if you are not able to communicate or unconscious.
For example, you can request in your living will that a feeding tube be withheld if you are terminally ill.
Or, you can specify in a living will exactly how long you are kept alive on life support.
Medical Durable Power Of Attorney
Another item on your estate planning checklist needs to be a medical durable power of attorney, which is also sometimes called a health care proxy or health care power of attorney.
A medical durable power of attorney authorizes a loved one or someone else you designate to make the medical decisions for you in case you can’t.
A medical durable power of attorney goes hand in hand with a living will.
This document allows a person to make all medical decisions on your behalf from the routine decisions about procedures, medications, and other treatments that might not be specifically stated in your living will to even the most difficult decisions such as stopping life support.
Deciding on the representative to give medical power of attorney isn’t a choice that should be taken lightly.
General Power Of Attorney
A power of attorney allows you to designate a person to represent you.
While a general power of attorney has the same power in most instances as you would if you were physically present, you can also scope specific or specified powers of attorney for certain situations as well.
A general power of attorney will allow the representative (e.g., a parent, spouse, or an adult child) to be able to act in your name should you become sick, disabled, incapacitated, or unable to manage your own financial and personal affairs.
A power of attorney is a large amount of power and should only be designated to a trusted person.
For example, your representative who has your power of attorney has the authority to enter into contracts in your name, borrow money, and make major financial decisions for you.
A power of attorney allows your spouse or family to make fast and efficient decisions in your name without the delay of seeking court approval to conduct your financial and personal business transactions.
A trust is one of the greatest and most creative estate planning tools created to transfer property and preserve family assets.
There are many different types of trusts, and they are not simply for the rich and famous and their spoiled children—trusts have started to creep into mainstream financial planning and the estate planning checklist of more Americans.
Using a trust in your estate plan has many benefits.
Trusts allow you to put conditions on how and when your assets are distributed after you die, and you can make these decisions well in advance of your death.
They can also help you reduce estate and gift taxes.
This is especially beneficial when you need to distribute assets to heirs efficiently without a high cost, delay, and or the publicity of probate court.
Trusts also help you to protect your assets from creditors and lawsuits.
Everyone Needs A Will
If you take nothing else away from this estate planning checklist, you should go out and get a last will and testament today. It is the most important tool in this estate planning checklist.
It is an urban myth to think you do not have enough assets to warrant having a will.
Having a will also let you name an executor, take care of your children, and save your family from headaches and sorrow down the line.
My Case Study
Three years after having our first child, we finally got around to completing our Last Will and Testament, Living Will, and Durable Power of Attorney.
If you were to review any estate planning checklist, these would be the top three items on the list.
Because they help make some really important decisions you should think about now, instead of when it’s too late.
Things like: what happens to your kids when you die?; what happens to your assets when you die?; and what happens when you are on life support and can’t make decisions for yourself?
I’m so glad to have this done. We were such slackers for the longest time.
I shared a post last year on how some people choose to do their Last Will and Testament for free. That’s not what we decided to do. Nor did we decide to use the online legal services (like LegalZoom.com).
We have a friend that is a lawyer here in Texas and we decided to use his services.
I’m glad we did because I really didn’t know what was involved with the comprehensive estate planning process here in Texas.
In the end, we’re left with the following 3 documents:
1. Directive to Physicians and Family or Surrogates (Living Will)
The Directive to Physicians, or Living Will, is a document that outlines your wishes, if you are ever in a “terminal” condition and/or “irreversible” condition AND unable to make your own medical decisions. I personally had the hardest time with this document.
We also completed a Medical Power of Attorney and HIPAA Release Authorization. This assigns an agent to help carry out your Living Will and make additional medical decisions for you.
2. Last Will and Testament
The Last Will and Testament is the main thing we wanted out of this process because we wanted to direct who would take care of our children if something were to happen to us. The Will also dictates what happens to our assets.
We weren’t very nitpicky here. Lastly, we had to decide on an Executor (the person who executes the Will) and Guardians (multiple in case one isn’t around) for the children.
3. Statutory Durable Power of Attorney
Lastly, we now have a Durable Power of Attorney. This document gives an agent the authority to make financial moves on our behalf if we are ever incapacitated.
In addition to the POA, we had to complete a Notice to Person Executing Power of Attorney (I guess this is Texas’ way of making sure you know what powers you’re giving up).
Working with a Lawyer
The process of getting all of this done was fairly straight-forward (4 parts): questionnaire, information gathering meeting, document preparation, and signing with witnesses.
First, we scheduled an information-gathering meeting with our lawyer, Robert.
Because he’s a good friend, he offered to meet us at our home so we wouldn’t have to get a baby-sitter. The day before, he provided a questionnaire for us to complete. Some of the questions we were unsure about, which is why the meeting was critical.
The questionnaire was used to gather some basic information about me, Mrs. PT, our children, and our financial situation.
We were also asked to provide answers to these questions:
- Who will serve as Executor (of the Last Will and Testament)?
- Who will serve as Guardians (multiple) for any minor children?
- Who will serve as agent on the Durable Power of Attorney (multiple for each spouse)?
- Who will serve as agent in the Medical Power of Attorney (multiple for each spouse)?
Next, our lawyer completed the actual documents and forwarded them to us for review.
Upon acceptance, we scheduled a meeting to sign the documents in front of witnesses and a notary.
The signing took less than an hour, and thanks to another friend lending her babysitting skills, we were able to attend the meeting without the kids.
Lawyer Fees vs LegalZoom.com
I couldn’t help myself. I had to compare costs.
The cost to complete the estate planning documents outlined above with our lawyer (with friend and family discount) was around $550.
If we were to complete the same services through LegalZoom.com it would cost around $350.
- LegalZoom Last Will and Testament (comprehensive) – $79 x2
- LegalZoom Living Will (comprehensive) $49 x2
- LegalZoom Power of Attorney (comprehensive) $44.95 x2
Based on our level of involvement (next to none), the personal service we received, and the fact we were supporting a friend, I’m comfortable with the extra $200 spent.
Most importantly, I’m happy to have this completed.
Have you completed your Will? Did you have these other documents completed too? Did you make your own Will or use a lawyer?