American author Ambrose Bierce once wrote: "Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate."
There is a lot of truth to that statement. Every adult dies with a will. Some take the necessary steps to write their own wills while others neglect to do this and let the courts decide for them. But rest assured, your assets (or debts) will be distributed even if you don’t prepare a will. It just won’t go the way you or your family intended. Whether you’re coordinating legal documents for your aging parents, or decide it’s time for you to create a will, it’s always good to know how much a will costs.
Why You Need a Will
More than likely, probate is not going to distribute your assets the way you would have envisioned it. That’s why it's vitally important that you take the steps needed to create your will and express your final wishes in the way that you want them to be heard.
But what exactly constitutes a valid will? Do you have to go to a lawyer and pay thousands of dollars to have one written? Or can it be something simple that you draft in Microsoft Word all by yourself? It can be helpful to know what the difference is between a will and a trust before proceeding with either.
In this post, we’ll explain what a will is, how to draft and certify a will, what your options are, and ultimately how much money it costs to write a will. We’ll also cut through some of the misinformation about wills that you might have learned from watching too many murder mysteries. To get you started, let’s address a few of the most common questions that come up while writing wills.
Can You Do Your Own Will for Free?
Yes, it’s perfectly legal for you to write your own will. As long you draft a document that captures all of the main points such as:
- Listing out your full legal name and address
- Including a declaration paragraph which states that you are “of legal age and sound mind, that this is your last will and testament and revokes all previously made wills and codicils, and that you are not making this will under duress”.
- Naming your executor – the person who will act on your to manage the will
- Appointing guardians if you have minor children or dependents
- Naming your beneficiaries – the people who should receive your property
There are several do-it-yourself (DIY) templates and forms for wills that you can download free from the Internet to use as a reference. There are also a number of paid online platforms such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer that charge a small fee but will walk you through the process more comprehensively. There are also many types of wills so it’s good to learn about each type before deciding to do it yourself or hire an attorney.
How to Validate Your Will
Writing a will alone doesn’t necessarily make it legitimate. Every state has special laws about how a will needs to be witnessed or notarized. But just about every state requires some version of these two verification and validation steps to certify a will:
- Witnessing is the process of another adult verifying that you signed your will (while of sound mind and not under any influence). Usually, the witness will then also provide their signature as testimony to the event. Every state has different requirements about who is eligible to serve as a witness and whether or not they have to actually watch you sign the will or just be present in the process.
- Notarization is when a notary public (an official appointed by the state government) authenticates the document you sign. This is similar to the witness process but it carries more weight since the notary must meet special state requirements to hold this title.
Generally speaking, most states only require that your will be witnessed. However, having your will notarized may make it harder to challenge during probate. Also remember that if this step is missed, then your will may not be enforceable.
Technically, it doesn’t cost anything to have witnesses sign your will. If you want or need to have it notarized, many places like banks or county clerks will often provide this service free of charge.
Read 8 Steps to Preparing a Will for more detailed step-by-step instructions.
Do You Have to Go to a Lawyer to Make a Will?
No, not necessarily. If your estate will be relatively small, you have no known debts, or you plan to leave everything to a handful of family members, then a DIY will might be a suitable solution. It’s helpful to learn more about what to put in a will. However, if you have significantly more money or you believe your affairs will be more complex, then you may want to consult an estate planning attorney.
A good estate planning lawyer can be worth their weight in gold. Though they will definitely cost more money upfront, the amount of headache and savings they can provide to your surviving family can be easily worth the cost.
Estate planning lawyers can help determine what specific topics your will should include, how they should be handled, and what the content should say. For example, if you’ve got special instructions for how a surviving spouse or another dependent should be cared for, then a lawyer can help to draft the language needed to make sure your wishes are clearly communicated.
Additionally, you may have special conditions or stipulations that you’d like to include for the eligibility of your beneficiaries. For instance, you might wish to leave a family business to your adult child, but only if they go to rehab and prove that they are stable enough to manage it.
If you’ve got a lot of assets, the estate planning attorney might also recommend other useful estate planning tools such as revocable living trust. A trust will let your assets avoid the probate process and go directly into the hands of your beneficiaries. This can be particularly helpful in the case of someone who believes their estate may be challenged by a divorced spouse or creditors.
If you want to research how to prepare a will yourself, it can be helpful in making the ultimate decision for going with a lawyer or not.
What is the Average Cost of a Will?
As you might guess, the average cost of a writing will depends on which creation method you choose:
- If you write a will entirely yourself: $0
- If you use an online legal platform or need legal advice: $100+
- If you consult a lawyer and have to pay an attorney fee: $250 to $1,000+
- If you use a lawyer to create an entire estate planning package (such as a will, revocable living trust, and durable power of attorney): $1,000 to $2,500+
The important thing to remember about wills is not to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. If you plan to bequeath several assets to your family and friends, don’t cut corners creating a simple (flimsy) will that’s open to interpretation. Make your estate and final wishes as ironclad as possible by taking all of the necessary steps you can now.
Regardless of how you decide to go about writing your will, don’t hide it away in your filing cabinet and make it impossible to find. Use an app like Pillar to organize all of your important documents into one convenient place and share them with the people you trust. You can try Pillar for free for 14 days with absolutely no obligations.