While most people recognize the importance of having a will and testament only about 32% of people surveyed in 2020 have a written will. The reason most people give for not having one is that they simply haven’t gotten around to it.
Making an online will is a relatively new practice, but if your estate isn’t huge, and your plans are standard, a DIY online will might be the right choice for you.
What is a will?
A last will and testament is a legal document that lets you determine what happens to your assets and belongings after you die. A will can be as simple or complex as your estate, but should cover these main aspects:
- Funeral arrangements. Determine who makes these arrangements and provide instructions for your funeral.
- An executor. Choose a person who will administer your estate. This should be someone you trust to follow your intentions if there’s confusion in how the will is written.
- Property distribution. Explain how your assets that aren’t attached directly to a beneficiary should be distributed.
- Guardianship of your children. Determine who will take care of your minor children and which of your assets will be used to support them after your death.
- Business interests. Specify who will inherit your business, who will run the business and how it will be run. If you already have a partnership agreement in place, that overrides whatever you put in your will.
Why do I need a will?
Without a will, your assets go intestate, which means that the state you live in determines how your assets are distributed. This can put a burden on your surviving family, as they won’t have access to your assets until they go through the process of intestate succession.
The intestate succession takes longer to distribute assets than a will. Also, the decisions of your funeral arrangements and how your assets are distributed will be in the hands of whoever the state determines is qualified.
Having a will can also help you avoid going through living probate. Part of your will determines who can make decisions for you, should you ever become incapacitated. Without one, you go into living probate — and again, the state decides who will make those decisions using guardianship proceedings in court.
Either way, wills are important if you have assets, kids or a spouse. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many workers are also preparing wills before returning to their physical workplaces, including teachers and essential workers.
How to make a will online
Follow the steps below to create an online will:
- Plan what you want to say in your will before you start, so you know what information you’ll need.
- Gather the information you’ll need. For example, you’ll need a list of your assets and their monetary worth.
- Open your online service and follow the software prompts to fill out your will.
- Once the will is complete, proofread to make sure you didn’t make any errors and to ensure you covered everything.
- Follow the laws of your state to sign and notarize the will, and to file it with the appropriate authorities, if applicable.
- Store a printed copy of your will in a safe place that is accessible to your beneficiaries.
What do I need to put in an online will?
What needs to be in your will depends on where you live, so make sure you know the requirements of your state. But in general, your will should have the following components:
- Declaration. Affirm that you are the one who wrote this will, that you agree with what it says and that you’re of sound mind. Make sure you include your name and address in this section.
- Family. List the members of your family that you want to include and exclude as beneficiaries. Note that community property states won’t allow you to exclude your spouse.
- Executor. Whoever you choose will be responsible for paying off any outstanding debts using your estate assets. The executor is also responsible for making sure the terms of the will are enforced and makes decisions if questions about the estate arise.
- Beneficiaries. List the beneficiaries of your will, whether that’s family, friends or charitable organizations. Specify who you want to take care of your minor children should you and your spouse both pass away.
- Debts. This is your opportunity to determine which assets will cover your debts, including the taxes that are owed.
- Bequests. If you have specific items of property you want given to particular people in your life, this is where you list them. Otherwise, your property will be divided equally among your beneficiaries.
- Funeral arrangements. Specify what you want to be done with your remains as well as who you want to take care of your funeral.
- Non-bequeathed assets. Life insurance policies, bank accounts and retirement accounts usually require you to specify a beneficiary when you open them, which means your will doesn’t determine where those assets go. But listing them in your will can make things easier on your family and make sure they don’t miss an asset that could help them after you’re gone.
What to do after you make a will online
Once you’ve written your will, make sure to follow these steps to validate your wishes.
- Sign. You and two witnesses who aren’t named in the will need to sign it. Some online services will allow you to sign the will electronically.
- Notarize. While you technically don’t have to notarize your will, it’s a fairly easy and inexpensive step to make sure your family doesn’t have to prove its authenticity down the road. Your online will program should describe the notary rules in your state.
- Protect. Be sure to store your will in a safe place accessible to your family. For example, you don’t want to put it in a safe deposit box that your spouse can’t access or in a safe that only you can open.
Does a will affect my life insurance?
No. The beneficiaries named on your life insurance will receive the payout, unless you’ve made your estate your beneficiary. Nothing you say in your will can change that. If you have any changes to make to your life insurance policy, you’ll need to make them directly through your insurer.
However, if all of the listed beneficiaries on your life insurance policy are deceased, your death benefit will be paid to your estate. Once part of your estate, it will be distributed according to your will.
What is a codicil?
A codicil is a way to make changes or additions to your will without having to redo it. To make sure your codicil is legally bound to your will, you should include the following components:
- Title. Your codicil’s title should match your will’s title. For example, if the title to your will is “Last Will & Testament of [Your Name]” then your codicil’s title should be “Codicil to the Last Will & Testament of [Your Name].”
- Declaration. Similar to the declaration in your main will, this declaration should affirm who you are and that you are of sound mind when writing this. It should also include the date you are writing the codicil and the date of the will.
- Changes. This is a legal document that will supersede what was written in your will. Whether you are inserting new language or want to change the existing language, make sure your intent is clear. It may help to quote the paragraph as is and then quote the paragraph with your changes.
- Closing. At the end of your codicil, you need to reaffirm that outside of the changes you’ve made, the rest of your will should stand as written.
Once your codicil is complete, you need to go through the same process to sign and notarize as you did with your original will. Then, be sure to store the codicil with your will in a safe place that’s accessible to your beneficiaries.
How much does it cost to make a will online?
There are several free last will and testament forms available online, but basic services can range from $20 to $100. Some online will sites also offer additional services, such as consultations with a legal advisor or online notary, at extra cost. But compared to the $150 an hour or $1,000 average flat fee you would pay for a lawyer, even the most expensive online service will save over what you’d pay an estate planner.
The following are approximate costs for online will services:
|Last will and testament||$20 to $100|
|Legal consult||$15 per month|
|Power of attorney||$35|
|Printing||$10 per document|
Is an online will valid?
Yes, as long as you follow your state’s requirements. For example, if the state you live in requires a notarized signature with two other witness signatures, then your electronic signature online probably won’t count.
But states are starting to pass legislation specific to electronic wills. As of November 2019, Florida, Indiana and Nevada have laws allowing electronic wills on the books.
Also, the Uniform Law Commission has approved a Uniform Electronic Wills Act, which could be enacted across most states within a few years. Until then, be sure to follow the requirements of your state, whether you use an online service to file or create a will yourself.
Should I make a will online?
Whether an online will is for you depends on your circumstances and the complexity of your estate. A few of the larger online will sites offer more comprehensive estate planning services. Still, if your estate is over $11.58 million and large enough to be subject to estate taxes, you may consider consulting an estate planning attorney. Consider the following pros and cons before making a decision.
What are the advantages of making a will online?
Building your will online has the following advantages:
- Lower cost. Even with all the bells and whistles, using an online will preparation service will cost you less than two hours of working with an attorney.
- Convenience. Being able to work through the difficult task of setting up your will from the comfort of home is a plus. And making changes is as easy as logging back into your account.
- Saves time. You could have a basic online will in place well within an hour using an online service, where an attorney may take months to write and vet a will for you.
What are the drawbacks of making a will online?
Before you decide to use an online last will service, consider the following drawbacks:
- Unintended errors. Without an attorney to vet your will, incorrect use of legal terminology or unintended mistakes may cause a headache for your beneficiaries in the long run.
- Not compliant with state law. Online services try to meet the needs of every state, but it’s still your responsibility to make sure the execution of your will complies with state laws.
- Inflexible to more complex issues. Even the most basic estate can come with complex issues your online software doesn’t cover. For example, inadequate plans for tax issues or the failure to account for future children or grandchildren could cause your family to be less protected than you’d intended.
What else do I need to finish my estate planning?
Writing a will is only one part of planning your estate. To ensure your family will be protected after you die, make sure you include the following tasks in your plan:
- Life insurance. Your life insurance policy can protect your family financially, especially if something happens unexpectedly.
- Document your financial details. Make sure you list out all of your accounts and investments and find a way to securely pass on your passwords so your beneficiaries can access them.
- Make funeral plans. This information will be a part of your last will, but you should also make your wishes known to your loved ones in case the funeral comes before the reading of the will.
- Name an executor or trustee. Make sure the people you want to administrate your estate are on board before you name them in your estate plan and will.
- File a living will. Make sure your family is protected from having to make medical treatment decisions for you by filing advance medical directives in your living will. Then let them know your decision, so they can be sure to act in line with those wishes when the time comes.
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Making a will online can be an easy and cost-efficient way to make sure your assets are distributed in line with your wishes. But if your assets make you subject to the estate tax, or if your needs are more complex, you should consult with an attorney to make sure you’re not leaving a mess for your family to figure out. Along with writing your will, make sure you take the time to plan out the rest of your estate for peace of mind that all is taken care of for your loved ones once you’re gone.