Should You Write a DIY Will or Do You Need a Lawyer?
We’ve all heard of — or, unfortunately, witnessed — the family drama and blood feuds that spark up after a loved one has moved on.
If your grandmother promised you a family heirloom but your cousin snags it up shortly after her death, you might be inclined to leave the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood on your cousin’s voicemail.
Inheritance disputes can last literal decades and can turn a time of mourning into a family feud that not even Steve Harvey could quell.
Unless you put a will into place. But should you write a DIY will or hire a lawyer to draft one?
What is a Will?
While you’re probably familiar with the concept of a will, let’s talk about the nitty-gritty of what a will is and why you need one.
A will is a document that specifies exactly who receives what after you pass on. It’s a way to protect your final wishes and leave your stuff to those you want.
Writing a will is part of estate planning. You can write a will at any age, and should especially consider putting one in place once you have dependents or start building your wealth. A will lets you leave your property to a beneficiary or heir — a person or organization of your choosing that becomes legally entitled to whatever property you’re planning to leave to them.
For example, you might choose to leave your home to your favorite charity. You might leave your stamp collection to one of your children who enjoys the same hobby. You could even leave your ‘69 Mustang to a friend or grandchild.
What you can’t do is assign anyone the benefits of an account that already has a named beneficiary, like a life insurance policy or joint bank account.
You can change the beneficiaries of those accounts and policies by requesting a change of beneficiary form from your bank, insurer, or other issuing institution.
After you assign who gets what, you should assign someone to serve as your executor. Executors are responsible for putting your will to work and acting on your behalf during the probate process. Executors also manage your estate and affairs after your death.
If you don’t name an executor, the courts will assign an executor from those who are interested, usually a family member or beneficiary. Without naming an executor yourself, someone less-than-ideal might end up overseeing your will and estate.
Writing a will means you keep control over what happens to your property and money after you’ve moved on. It’s a way to protect your final wishes.
3 Ways to Make a Will
While laws might differ a little depending on your state and city, there are generally three options for how to write a will:
1. Write a will yourself, the same way you would a college essay. Start scribbling your final wishes down on a blank piece of paper or typing into a new document and, voila, you’ve got yourself a will.
2. Use an online service to write your will. Simply answer a series of questions and your will is generated for you. Easy-peasy.
3. Hire a lawyer to draft a will for you. Let the pros handle it.
Which option is best for you? Keep on reading to learn which option is best for you when.
Writing a Will From Scratch
There’s nothing stopping you from writing a will yourself. But just because writing a will from scratch seems simple, it might not be as easy as it seems.
A DIY will needs to adhere to your state’s laws. Some states allow handwritten wills; others require a typed will. There are also laws that require a certain number of witnesses to sign your will, in addition to your own signature.
You’ll also need to do research into taxes (ugh). For example, 15 states (and D.C.) have an estate tax, six states have an inheritance tax, and two states have both. If any of your will’s heirs live in such a state, you might have to set aside additional assets to cover the hit from taxes.
When you write a will yourself, you’ll have to list and assign all your assets (property, savings, and belongings) to your choice of beneficiaries. Before you do, though, you need to figure out what assets you own and which ones can be assigned to someone through your will.
John P. Farrell, an estate planning and probate lawyer at The Farrell Law Firm in Marietta, Georgia, told U.S. News “someone with a single piece of real estate and a small amount in investments” might be okay with a DIY will. But if your situation is more complicated and involved, you could easily overlook an area of critical importance by writing your will yourself.
When writing a DIY will, it helps to be as specific as possible in the language you use. Instead of letting “my family” decide how to arrange your funeral, name a specific person. If you’re leaving your home “to charity,” list a specific charity to donate it to.
Writing a Will Online
Popular online services like Nolo’s Online Will, Rocket Lawyer, and LegalZoom, as well as others, help people write wills for a small fee — or for free. Software like Quicken WillMaker can be purchased and downloaded so you can draft your will offline.
But what are the benefits of writing a will online when you can just write one yourself?
Online services operate similarly to how lawyers draft wills: by using a template. Once you put in your place of residence, the service will generate a template that follows your state’s rules and laws — a huge convenience compared to researching them yourself beforehand.
Once the proper template is loaded up, fill it in by answering a series of questions about your life, finances, and final wishes. By answering a list of predefined questions, you’ll reduce or eliminate the chance a vital asset or assignment is overlooked in your will.
When you’ve finished putting in your information, the online service will generate a will that’s valid and legal for your state of residence. You’ll also be given instructions for how you and your witness(es) must properly sign the document.
The cost of writing a will online won’t set you back all that much. Services like Rocket Lawyer cost as little as $39.99 per document. Nolo’s Online Will is priced at $59.99 and LegalZoom ranges from $69 to $149. Quicken WillMaker, the offline offering, is a one-time price of $79.99.
You can also buy or download last will and testament forms to be filled in yourself, like a job application. Some local stores, like Staples or Office Depot, might also have ready-made forms available for sale.
Hiring a Lawyer to Draft Your Will
Lawyers and estate attorneys are well-versed with drafting wills and figuring out how best to divide your assets. That knowledge does come at a cost, however.
For those whose financial situation is complex, hiring a lawyer often pays for itself. While lawyers use a template similar to that used by an online service, a lawyer is also a resource. They can answer any questions you have and will ask you questions to draft a will that’s both valid and that fulfills your final wishes.
For example, a lawyer can help you figure out the cost of estate taxes, provide special care for a family member with long-term care needs, or assign your assets to a trust to reduce the impact of taxes on your heirs.
Consulting a lawyer can also help answer questions of what happens to your small business or if it’s possible to disinherit your spouse from what they’re legally obligated to after your passing.
You don’t need to hire a lawyer to draft your will from start to finish. A lawyer or estate attorney is often more than happy to review a will you’ve written on your own or generated through an online service — though there’s no guarantee doing so will save you money on lawyer fees.
The cost of hiring an attorney to review a will averages between $100 to $400 per hour, according to LegalZoom. LegalZoom goes on to report the average cost of an attorney drafting a will from the get-go is “about $375,” though it can rise to $1,000 or more for more complex estate planning.
In fact, some estate attorneys charge “about $2,000 for a full estate plan,” which includes trusts and power of attorney assignments.
The biggest benefit of hiring an attorney to draft your will is the expertise that comes along with the price tag. If you decide to go this route, shop around your local area to compare prices and find a lawyer you’ll be comfortable working with.
Should I Write My Will Myself or Hire a Lawyer?
There’s not actually a right or wrong answer for how to — or who should — write your will. Really, what matters most is how complicated your finances and last wishes are.
If you’ve got an expansive portfolio, a yacht, and a vacation home in Bali, you’re better off consulting a lawyer than scribbling down a will yourself. Even if you’re not quite as wealthy as the Wolf of Wall Street, if you have more than one residence and are big into investing, talk to a lawyer.
Lawyers and estate planners are familiar with local and state laws and can ensure your will is accurate, valid, and doesn’t leave anything out. They’re also able to make sure you’re not assigning property to someone through your will when a beneficiary has already been named on a specific policy.
Hiring a lawyer means all your t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted. It’s the best chance you have of making sure your final wishes are covered.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with using an online service to write your will. A will made online or through a store-bought template is legal and valid so long as it follows the laws of your state.
And whether you use an online service or write a will from scratch, follow a will checklist to make sure you’re including all the necessary information and stipulations.
Plan for the Future By Writing a Will
It’s never too early to write a will. In fact, as with life insurance, writing a will is a key part of planning for the end of your life. As life goes on and things change, there’s nothing stopping you from updating your will, either.
Like with life insurance, drafting a will helps protect your family’s well-being and your final wishes when you’re no longer around to direct things. A will is a great way to pass on the things you worked hard for, to the people you love the most.