New parents, homeowners, and even people without significant assets should write a will. But articulating your final wishes doesn't have to involve expensive visits to a lawyer. Now, there are plenty of online ways to create a will or trust, many of which take less than an hour from start to finish. Here's an easy guide to writing a will on your own—often for much less than $100.
Calculate your assets. "Take an inventory of all the important assets that you have," says Brian Liu, chairman and cofounder of LegalZoom.com, a company that prepares legal documents. Most experts agree that do-it-yourself wills are best suited for people worth less than $2 million, the threshold for triggering estate taxes. "Legal fees have gone up, and some people feel that they often can no longer afford to go get their work done by a lawyer," says Alan Rothschild, vice chairman of the trust and estate division of the American Bar Association and an estate-planning lawyer in Columbus, Ga., who estimates that a basic estate plan from a lawyer costs $500 to $1,000.
But cheaper ways to bequeath your wealth have been proliferating online. Some websites, like LegacyWriter.com and BuildaWill.com, will walk you through a questionnaire and insert your answers into a will for $19.95. There are also downloadable computer programs like Quicken WillMaker Plus for $39.99 and Suze Orman's Will & Trust Kit for $13.50, which offer greater legal information. LegalZoom.com, which also starts with a questionnaire, will then have a "specialist" review your answers for completeness, starting at $69. The reviewers are not lawyers and cannot dispense legal advice but are often trained law students and other college graduates. Each state has different rules for wills, so any legitimate form or service must be tailored to your state.
Pick your heirs. "Making a will doesn't require a lot of legal knowledge, but you have a lot of personal decisions to make," such as to whom to leave property and assets, says Mary Randolph, a lawyer and coauthor of the legal manual for Quicken WillMaker Plus. You can also choose alternates if your first choice doesn't survive you. Spouses typically must make separate wills, and jointly owned assets automatically belong to the surviving co-owner. Retirement accounts and life insurance with specified beneficiaries generally are not under the jurisdiction of a will.
Even workers living paycheck to paycheck should consider making a will, especially if they have young children. "If two parents should pass away in a common accident, nobody really knows who should be responsible for the kids thereafter," Liu says. "It doesn't matter whether you have assets or not. If you have children, they are the most important asset that should be protected by a will." You should also choose an adult to manage the inheritance of children under age 18.
Select witnesses and an executor. Wills produced online need to be printed out or mailed to you. All states require at least two people to witness the signing of your will. "They need to sign in your presence and in each other's presence," Randolph says. "You don't want to have the witnesses be people who will inherit under the will." However, the executor, the person you choose to carry out the terms of the will, can and often is someone who will inherit assets under the will. "In many states, you have to do a separate witness affidavit that does need to be notarized," says Janet Dobrovolny, Suze Orman's trust lawyer and coauthor of Orman's Will & Trust Kit.
Put your will in a safe place. Several copies of the will should be made and placed in separate locations. "You want to keep it where the executor has access to it," says Randolph, who keeps her will in a fireproof box at home. "It's usually not a good idea to put it in a safe deposit box because other people don't usually have access to it." There's no need to file a will with a court until it is used, but tell your spouse, children, other heirs, and especially the executor of the estate where they can find it.
Consider whether you need a lawyer. "In a plain-vanilla situation, an intelligent person with no tax issues can go online and do a reasonable document that would be better than having no will at all," says Rothschild of the ABA. But real life often involves second marriages, stepchildren, special assets like family businesses, property in multiple states, and other situations that don't always fit into a fill-in-the-blank will with no legal advice. "In the more complicated situations that require legal judgment, there was too much of trying to be one size fits all for me to be comfortable recommending the online or computer programs," Rothschild says. "There is a lot of art in lawyering. I am not sure these online programs have mastered the art part of a safe landing."