A will contains specific instructions regarding how a person’s property will be managed when they pass away. This includes which people will receive which items of property, as well as other specific instructions. 

When a person passes away, there must be some way for their property to be divided up and distributed amongst their loved ones and family members. This is one of the main purposes of having a valid will in place before you die. 

How Do I Write a Will?

Having a will in place before you pass away is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your family. Writing your own will document can be fairly straightforward as long as your estate is small, meaning that the overall worth/value of your estate is low (like around $50,000). Nowadays, there are templates that can make it easier to draft your will. You can find various will templates online, including:

  • Fill-in-the-Blank Forms: These templates allow the user to fill-in-the-blanks with information such as your name, your property assets, what you wish to give away and to whom, etc. Because you are essentially writing your own will with these forms, they may not exactly be easy to fill out and require attention to detail. 
    • They can also be a lot of work for someone who doesn’t have any legal expertise or training. There are often few instructions included, which can lead to devastating, unintended errors.
  • Online Will Programs: You can also use an online program to help you draft a customized will document. As they are provided online, they typically provide online practical support.
  • Will Software: You can also download software onto your computer than can help you draft your will. You will need to answer individualized questions to help customize your will. Good programs will also include technical support if you should run into any issues.
  • Statutory Forms: For people who cannot afford an estate planning lawyer, but who would still like to draft their own will, statutory forms may be the answer. These forms are generally free and easy to fill out. 
    • However, they don’t allow for much tailoring to your individual estate, so these forms are often used if a person has very straightforward or limited assets.

What are the Steps to Writing a Valid Will?

Whatever method or form you choose to draft your will, you will need to gather some initial information that can make the drafting process easier. These include:

  • First, make a list of everything you own, including property, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, credits cards, etc.
  • Second, figure out who you want to give these items and funds to. These people are known as beneficiaries. Make a list identifying them. Use clear descriptors, for example “my Uncle Bill” is not as good as “my Uncle Bill on my father’s side, who lives at 123 Maple St in Chicago, IL.”
  • Third, name an executor for your will. This person will settle your affairs after your death, like pay your bills, file your tax return, and carry out your wishes. It should be a person you trust, who is younger than you, and likely to outlive you. Preferably, the executor should not be a beneficiary.
  • Fourth, draft your will document. You can use any of the methods and forms stated above.
  • Fifth, have two witnesses present who will be able to sign the document. They should also not be beneficiaries under the will.

I’ve Already Written a Will, so is Writing a New Will Necessary?

Sometimes, a will needs to be replaced with a new one. There are many significant events in life that might make writing a new will document necessary. Some of these events and changes include:

  • Moving to a different state or jurisdiction (each state has different rules when it comes to wills);
  • Getting married or divorced;
  • A baby being born or having a new addition to your family;
  • After acquiring or disposing of valuable properties;
  • After making or modifying a trust (trust laws and wills laws overlap to a great degree); and/or
  • If you have changed your mind regarding the inheritance distribution of your property.

A good rule of thumb is to review your existing will after any major events or changes that occur in your life. You’ll want to see if your will might be affected by the changes. It’s also a good idea to periodically review your will every few years even if new changes haven’t occurred. 

For example, if you just bought a new house then you would want to add it to the will, or if you just had a baby then you would want to make sure the child is looked after. 

What Happens to My Existing Will if I Write a New One?

In most cases, writing a new will won’t cancel or revoke the old one unless you intend for the new will to replace the existing will. The easiest way to demonstrate this intention is to include language in the new will stating that you intend to cancel the prior will. 

For instance, you should include a clause that states something like, “I am canceling my will dated ___ and enforcing this new will dated ___”. Without such language, it is possible that your old will would still be in effect, and not the newly created one. To avoid confusion, it’s best to refer to each will document by its date and to specifically cancel the validity of the old will. 

Which is Better – Writing a New Will or Modifying the Existing One?

In some cases a person might only need to make a small change to their will. They might not need to rewrite the whole document. Modifying a will can be done using a “codicil.” This is basically an amendment (addition) to the old will. 

The codicil needs to be executed using the same formalities for a valid will (such as having witnesses present). Depending on your situation as well as your needs, using a codicil may or may not be the best option.

For example, simply amending an existing will can sometimes create confusion, as the amendments can make the will difficult to read. Also, newer computer forms have made it much simpler to recreate an entire will based on an existing one. Thus it is becoming standard practice to simply write a new will if changes need to be made to an existing one. 

Again, the choice of writing a new will versus a codicil will depend on your own individual needs and aims regarding your property. If you need guidance as to the proper form for writing a new will, it is definitely helpful to contact a wills attorney for advice. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help Writing a New Will?

Writing a new will itself be a major undertaking. You’ll want to make sure you’re meeting all the requirements for a valid will in your state. You may need to hire a wills, trusts, and estates lawyer in your area if you need help with a will. Your attorney can provide you with guidance and instruction on how to make sure your new will is valid.