Writing A Will 101

by Ron Haynes

path How to write a will

There are two ways to write a will: by yourself or with the aid of a professional.

“Do it yourself” wills: Writing a will by yourself is less expensive than working with an attorney. Expect to spend between $30 and $100 for will writing software. If you have a relatively simple estate, going this route is probably acceptable for your personal situation, but if your situation is at all complicated, “do it yourself” tools (forms, software, and websites) simply can’t ensure 100% compliance with state and federal guidelines.

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Work with a lawyer: An attorney specializing in estate planning not only can make sure the will you produce meets all governmental guidelines but also will be able to help you to create planning directives (a future post) and, if necessary, trusts( another future post!). Legal fees for producing a will usually range from $300 to $1,000 per person.

If you choose to work with a lawyer, always request and check references before beginning. The first step is to call your state’s Bar Association then look for a lawyer that will really listen to you, your concerns, and your wishes.

State considerations

Each state has specific estate planning laws and requirements. These include guidelines for spousal rights for married couples and community property statutes that decide who gets what when someone dies intestate (without a will). Other state guidelines may direct who can and cannot be an executor, how minor children are to be cared for, and how a will must be witnessed.

Choosing an executor

When you write a will, you have to choose an executor — the person or institution responsible for settling your estate after you die (the executor is sometimes called a personal representative). An executor “executes” your wishes as they are outlined in your will. Make sure you choose an executor you trust to fulfill this responsibility, and always get his or her consent before finalizing your decision. To choose an executor:

If You Are You should
Single Try to avoid choosing a parent, since your life expectancy probably exceeds theirs.
A parent Though the oldest child is the most common selection, don’t just choose your oldest child by default. Consider whether complications, such as sibling rivalries, might occur.
Don’t have a suitable relative Choose a friend you trust, or name a bank or other trust department or perhaps your attorney.

In addition, before selecting an executor:

  • Make sure your executor will have access to liquid assets (cash) sufficient to cover the costs of probate, legal filings, and so forth. This amount should total at least $5,000 but could be as much as $25,000 or more if you have assets in multiple states, have complicated debts, or if the executor must travel extensively to settle your affairs.
  • When choosing a family member or friend, always remember that being an executor requires a significant investment of time, money, and emotion. They’re going through a grieving process.

Executor’s copy of the will

Once your will is written, make sure the executor has a signed, witnessed copy before your death. Don’t keep your only copy in a safe-deposit box since these are usually sealed when you die (though your executor can eventually gain access). It’s best to provide a separate signed and witnessed copy to your executor before you die.

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Your spouse’s rights in a will

You can usually leave all your personal assets (and your interest in joint assets) to your spouse without estate or income tax consequences, but only if you have a will that affirms your wishes. Other important considerations:

  • You can’t “disinherit” your spouse unless you have a signed prenuptial agreement (pre-nup) authorizing you to do so.
  • Property held jointly, such as a primary home, usually goes directly to the other owner(s) — most often to your spouse (if he or she is the other owner). Property held jointly may be classified as tenants-in-common, joint tenants with rights of survivorship (JTWROS), or tenancy by the entirety. Real estate owned as tenancy by the entirety applies solely to married couples. In this case, neither spouse may direct the property to anyone other than a spouse.
  • Your share of any property held as joint tenants in common (JTIC) can usually be left to whomever you wish, including your spouse, as long as you comply with your state’s laws in preparing your will.

Community property states

Currently, nine states have laws that consider all property acquired during a marriage “community property” — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

In these states, a husband and wife own jointly all assets purchased with money earned during the marriage. Estate planning in states with community property laws can be complex, so be sure to consult an attorney to help devise a plan to ensure that your wishes will be carried out if you die before your spouse. Spouses often wish to leave a portion of their jointly owned assets to people other than their spouses, such as children—a decision often best facilitated by a trust in addition to a will.

Choosing guardians

If you have minor children, you can use your will to identify a guardian who will be responsible for taking care of them should something happen to you. Get the consent of anyone you are considering as a guardian before selecting them. Also make sure that any guardian you select has sufficient financial resources to take care of your children.

Getting the will witnessed

In order for a will to be official, it must be signed in the presence of a notary by at least one, and usually two,witnesses. Anyone can serve as a witness to a will as long as he or she is not a spouse of the writer of the will. In most states (though not all), a witness may not be a beneficiary under the will.

If you work with a lawyer, he or she will make sure the will is witnessed correctly. After the will is witnessed, it may take several weeks for the legal documents to be completed.


Whether you use will writing software or decide to go the attorney route, writing a will is an important part of your financial life. It ensures that your assets go to the people you want, and it makes sure your wishes aren’t settled by a judge who probably never knew you.

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About the author

Ron Haynes has written 1001 articles on The Wisdom Journal.

The founder and editor of The Wisdom Journal in 2007, Ron has worked in banking, distribution, retail, and upper management for companies ranging in size from small startups to multi-billion dollar corporations. He graduated Suma Cum Laude from a top MBA program and currently is a Human Resources and Management consultant, helping companies know how employees will behave in varying situations and what motivates them to action, assisting firms in identifying top talent, and coaching managers and employees on how to better communicate and make the workplace MUCH more enjoyable. If you'd like help in these areas, contact Ron using the contact form at the top of this page or at 870-761-7881.

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Credit Girl

I’m really glad that you wrote on this topic because it’s not really covered in many places on HOW TO write a will..Also, many people who don’t have suitable relatives tend to give the money to their favorite charity which I think is great if you have that privilege. Another crazy story I heard was about how a lady left millions of dollars for her pet, which I believe was a cat.

Jason @ MyMoneyMinute

As a disclaimer – I’m an attorney in Texas, so I think the VAST majority of people should seek legal counsel when drafting a Will. If you’re young & single without children or major assets, then software may work for you.

A few observations:
(1) I know in CA & TX, and I assume most states, you need “disinterested” witnesses. That means not only is the spouse disqualified, but anyone else that could potentially take from the Will. You covered this pretty well, but better safe than sorry with this one.

(2) I know some attorneys choose to write up a separate ancillary document to the Will to provide for guardians for their minor children. That way if they choose to change their guardian designations, they don’t have to re-draft their entire Will to get it done. Sometimes it comes across a bit smoother that way.

Great job!


Thanks for the encouragement! I gotta admit, when I saw “I’m an attorney” I thought, “Oh, no. What did I leave off or say wrong?”

I agree with you on needing to use a lawyer for all but the simplest of situations. That will be a couple of hundred dollars WELL spent.


Attorney here also, and all I do is Trust and Estate Work.

In New York you need TWO DISINTERESTED Witnesses. Its little things like that though which could sky rocket probate costs.

Credit Girl,

Many states have Pet statutes


Here is a list and the woman you are probably thinking of is Helmsley

Ace of Wealth

Thanks for these wonderful tips. I realize the importance of having a will, but I haven’t gotten around to doing this yet. Thanks for the extra motivation.


Speaking from personal experience, seeking the services of a good attorney is worth the investment. It’s important to make sure that your wishes are carried out as you envision them. Good intentions do not count toward the survivors’ well fare after someone’s death in the end. Just an additional point, be sure that discounted services offered through a credit card or some other plan meets your needs and are spelled out clearly.


First, we write wills for those living in Malaysia. After reading what is mentioned here, I agree that every country laws are quite different. Where I live, we go by English common law but even then, our probate laws with regards to inheritance might not make sense to those from elsewhere.

This is a good article especially the call to consult an expert unless it is a very simple and straightforward situation. Most people usually think their situation is simple until we really sit down and go through with them.

What Lillie mentioned about free or cheap services from financial services co like brokers happens here too. You get a low cost will but then you have to use them as executors. Fees later could be a big question mark.

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