What Is a Will? Why You Need One

Writing a will can help ensure your wishes are honored and save your loved ones from frustration at a difficult time.
Tiffany Lam-Balfour
Alana Benson
By Alana Benson and  Tiffany Lam-Balfour 
Edited by Claire Tsosie

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A will, also called a last will and testament, is a legal document describing what to do with a person’s assets when they die

Cornell Law School. Will.
. A will can include instructions for distributing property, naming guardians for children, making charitable donations and more.

Wills make it easier for beneficiaries to manage a deceased person’s assets and fulfill their final wishes. A well-written will can also simplify the probate process because it provides the executor, the state and your heirs clarity about your intentions for your assets.

» Writing a will? Check out our roundup of the best online will makers

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Why do you need a will?

If you die without a will — the legal term being "intestate" — your property will be distributed according to your state's laws

Cornell Law School. Intestacy.

In many states, intestacy laws give your property to your closest relatives, starting with your spouse, then your children, before branching out along your family tree. This process could end with a distant relative you didn't know — or knew and disliked — taking ownership of your prized possessions. Still worse, it could lead to your family becoming entangled in costly legal wrangling over your estate.

With a will, you can:

  • Distribute property according to your wishes. You can name anything you own in your will and decide who it should go, as long as it doesn’t have a designated beneficiary, such as a life insurance account.

  • Designate guardians for your kids in case you die. If both parents die without naming a guardian for their children under 18, a state court may have to appoint someone.

  • Save your loved ones time and money. A well-written will can simplify the probate process and reduce legal costs.

How much does a will cost?

The cost of a will depends on whether you write it yourself, with online software or with an estate planning attorney. Here are a few price estimates:

  • DIY: Free. In some states, a handwritten will is valid, but in others, you’ll need to have your will witnessed or notarized. Will notarization is free in some states and up to $15 in others. You can find and print a free will template online, but there’s no guarantee that it will be state-specific or legally binding.

  • Estate planning attorney: $300 to $1,000 and up flat fee or $200 and up hourly. A lawyer can help you ensure your will is legally sound in your state, and work with you to navigate more complex assets or beneficiaries.

  • Online will software: Free to $89 and up. Most online will software includes a questionnaire that helps customize your will to your state and situation. Some offer flat-fee estate planning packages, while others offer monthly memberships.

How a will works

A last will and testament is typically written by the person leaving behind the assets, sometimes with the assistance of a professional, such as an estate planning attorney or financial advisor.

Wills can govern the distribution of things like houses or real estate, cars, jewelry, bank accounts and other items, but they do not generally govern assets that are held jointly with another party (e.g., a home purchased with a sibling) or accounts that have a named beneficiary (e.g., a retirement plan or investment account).

The person creating the will names an executor, a trusted third party who is charged with overseeing the will’s administration during probate, the legal process for distributing a deceased person’s assets.

Types of wills

There are several different types of wills. Your state's legal requirements dictate their validity.

  • Simple or testamentary will: A legal document that specifies how to allocate your property upon your death.

  • Joint will: A legal document that blends the individual wills of more than one person because their wishes are the same. Example: Both spouses agree to leave everything to their surviving spouse and then to their children.

  • Handwritten or holographic will: A will that has not been witnessed or notarized, but is written by hand. It may not be valid in every state

    . Example: A soldier scribbles their wishes on pen and paper during a dangerous situation.

  • Oral or nuncupative will: A will that is verbally expressed to witnesses, rather than written down. It may not be valid by state. Example: A terminally ill patient who is unable to write and instead states their wishes aloud.

  • Living will: A document that outlines your preferences for medical care in the event you are unable to speak for yourself. This is unrelated to a last will and testament.

  • Pour-over will: A legal instrument that is used alongside a living trust as a contingency. It "pours" all estate assets over to the living trust in case assets were not transferred beforehand. 

» What works best for you? Know the differences between wills and trusts



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