Only one-third of Americans have estate planning documents, according to a 2021 study on wills and estate planning by caregiving platform Caring.com. However, the pandemic has caused many to start engaging in estate planning more seriously. The Caring study found that 2021 saw a 63 percent increase from last year in adults between the ages of 18 and 34 who have a will or another estate planning document; 24 percent of all adults surveyed said COVID made them see a greater need for estate planning and take action on it.
However, estate planning can be expensive. A basic estate plan package through a lawyer can cost anywhere between $1,500 and $2,500, according to Deanna LaRue, CFP, financial advisor at TimeWise Financial in Georgia. On the other hand, writing your own will—whether that's through an online form, a kit, or a handwritten document—ranges from free to a few hundred dollars, depending on the online form or kit and your estate planning needs. But there are various factors to be aware of when you're going the DIY route for your will. Here is what experts want you to know about writing your own will, and the potential risks that come with it.
Hiring a lawyer can save you (and your loved ones) money down the line.
An online form or a DIY will kit may be a more cost-effective option, but hiring a lawyer could save you money in the future. "If you don't understand or review the probate laws in your state, when trying to write your will on your own, it can cost you and your loved ones more in the long run (i.e. court fees, legal fees, and emotional distress)," says Emily Cisek, co-founder and CEO of The Postage, a full-service digital estate planning platform.
If there are any mistakes in your will, it can take a long time for it to clear probate court—a process all wills must go through, where a judge looks over the will to decide whether the assets are allowed to be transferred. "Please know that it is very easy to create an invalid will when you do it yourself, because you are taking on the role of an attorney," says Jala Eaton, a licensed attorney in California and a certified trust and financial advisor. "We study the laws for a reason," she adds.
Having a will drafted through a lawyer is less expensive—around $300 for a straightforward will, according to Investopedia. Though not the only way, creating a will through an attorney is a way to ensure your assets will be transferred the way you want them to, leading to more peace of mind for you and your loved ones.
You can hand-write your will or use an online form—just make sure you research your state's probate laws.
Two DIY options for writing a will are using an online platform or hand-writing your will, also known as a holographic will. "Handwritten wills are recognized in nearly half of the states, including Texas, California, and New Jersey," says Cisek. You would write down how you want your assets distributed and to whom, appoint an executor (who will carry out the terms of the will), and appoint guardians for any minor children you have. "Be sure to name alternates if your top choice can't or won't serve," says George L. Bischof, attorney at estate planning firm, Bischof & Bischof LLP.
Online will-makers are available on sites such as LegalZoom, Nolo, or The Postage (to name a few). "Online will-makers allow you to create a complete will by answering questions related to your life situation and final wishes," says Cisek. Online will platforms are created to follow the laws of your specific state, so they're less prone to error.
However, it is still wise to research and understand your state's probate code to avoid making mistakes that could invalidate your will. State laws are constantly changing, so do your own legal research about the laws in your area, says Eaton. Have a thorough understanding of what your state's probate code requires so your will is valid—"minor mistakes can cause the will to be invalid or contested," warns Cisek. This applies for both handwritten and online wills, though digital platforms strive to make it as straightforward as possible to avoid mistakes. For example, The Postage states its online will maker is 100 percent legal and executable.
Make sure you execute (sign) it properly so it's valid.
Once you create your will, it is really important that you execute or sign it correctly according to your state's law. "The big risk is that your will is not properly executed—correct number of witnesses, correct formal language above the will-maker's signature," says Bischof. He says that states "vary considerably" on these requirements, so once again, make sure you know the laws in your state.
"I would not recommend creating your own will because there are too many mistakes that can occur to make it invalid and again, each state is different," warns LaRue.
Have an attorney look over your will for accuracy.
If you choose to write your own will (online or holographic), get an attorney to review it for you. This way, you can fix any mistakes and know that your will is legally sound. "I offer estate plan audits for clients who have documents and want to make sure they work the way they think they do," says Eaton. "This is the most significant transfer of assets you will ever make. Your estate plan should be created with love, care, and expertise," she adds.
While writing your own will is definitely a more budget-friendly option, saving for a lawyer (or involving one at some point in the process) is an investment that could protect your family for generations.