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How to Write a Will

Written by Grace Styron
 about the author
8 minute readLast updated May 21, 2023
Reviewed by Denise LettauAttorney Denise Lettau has over 15 years of experience in the wealth management industry.

Your parent can start preparing their will anytime, even if they’re currently in good health and won’t need one for a while. Not only does preparing a will in advance help ease the distribution process for surviving family members, it can also help ensure one’s final wishes are honored. Learn the steps involved in preparing a will, and make sure you’re helping your parent make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones.

Key Takeaways

  1. A will dictates what happens to a person’s assets and property after they die. There are several types of wills, each with varying levels of complexity and objectives.
  2. Without a will, distributions are determined according to state laws. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could mean your parent’s true and final wishes aren’t honored.
  3. Writing a will takes time and involves several steps. Steps include listing each asset with beneficiaries, gathering proper documents, naming an executor, and signing with witnesses.
  4. Most states allow a person to write their own will, but do so with caution. Not using a lawyer can lead to mistakes that may cause the court to deem the document invalid.

Why does your loved one need a will?

A last will and testament allows a person to control what happens to their property, choose who inherits certain assets, and designate a trusted individual to oversee this process.
If your loved one dies without a will, the distribution process will likely be more costly and their true wishes likely won’t be honored. Without a will, their assets will be distributed according to their state’s laws of descent and distribution. Through this default method, their assets would typically be left to their spouse, any children, or other surviving family members.[01]

How to write a will in 5 steps

Encouraging a loved one to prepare a will can feel daunting and uncomfortable, and it’s understandable if you’re feeling some anxiety. To help guide you and your loved one through the process, try following these general steps to preparing a will.

1. Compile a list of all assets.

Sit down with your loved one and help them take inventory of all of their assets, including intangible property, intellectual property, and any valuable items they may own.
Their assets may include the following:
  • Real estate
  • Cars and any recreational vehicles
  • Stocks and bonds
  • Any businesses or corporations they may own
  • Patents, copyrights, and royalties
  • Personal savings, whether it’s cash, a bank account, or an investment
  • Valuables, such as collectibles, heirlooms, artwork, jewelry, or technology [02]
If your loved one’s assets are complicated, you can find a lawyer or accountant to help create this list and understand each asset.

2. Gather the proper documents.

Knowing where to find your parent’s important documents will help make preparing and executing their will much easier. Locate them, store them all together in a safe place, and let a lawyer or trusted family member know where to find them in case of an emergency.
Some documents you’ll want to pin down include the following:
  • Licenses and certificates, including birth and/or death certificates, marriage licenses, and any divorce certificates
  • Social Security and insurance information
  • Mortgage information and property deeds
  • A list of all of their bank accounts, investments, and insurance policy information, including designated beneficiaries
  • Burial plot information and other preferred funeral plans
  • Contact information of their lawyer, banks, financial advisors, and close friends and relatives [03]

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3. Choose an executor and beneficiaries.

An executor is the person responsible for making sure the intentions outlined in the will are honored and carried out. Their responsibilities include administering assets, handling certain claims, and distributing the assets as the will instructs. Executors are often the next of kin, but your parent can name any person they trust to communicate their intent well and to understand their responsibilities when the time comes. If your parent doesn’t know an individual they’d like to name as their executor, they can hire a trust company to take on the role.[04]
When naming the executor, it’s also a good idea — sometimes even a requirement — to name a couple of successor executors. These people are backups in case the primary executor dies before your parent does, or if the initial person named declines or is unable to serve.
A beneficiary is a person who inherits or receives certain assets once your parent passes away and the will goes into effect. So long as their intended distributions are clearly and specifically outlined in their last will, your parent may choose to name their spouse, children, friends, relatives, or even a charity as beneficiary.[05]
Working from their finalized list of assets, your loved one will need to decide who they’d like to receive each one. This can be a big decision and may take time, so it’s important to be patient. Make sure your loved one’s intentions are as clear as possible. The more detail they provide, the more likely it is that their final wishes will be honored.

4. Designate legal guardians for any dependents.

A dependent can be a minor child or an adult with a permanent disability.[06] If a surviving spouse isn’t guaranteed custody of a dependent when your loved one passes on, then a guardian will need to be designated in the will. Neglecting to do so will leave the decision up to the court.
When your parent designates who they’d like to care for their children or other dependents, it’s important that they think long term. Make sure they consider the person’s parenting skills, location, moral beliefs, financial situation, and state in life. Ideally, you’ll want a legal guardian to be in good health, have financial stability, hold beliefs that align with those of your parent’s, and have the will to take on the role of guardian.[07]
Additionally, similar to choosing an executor, it’s a good idea to name successor guardians. This will help ensure that the child or dependent will have someone reliable to watch over them no matter what.

5. Validate and sign the will, and update it as needed.

General requirements of a valid will also include the following:
  • Your loved one is of legal age and is mentally competent.
  • The will must have a substantive provision that disposes of your loved one’s property, and your loved one’s intent to make the will their final word is clearly indicated.
  • In some circumstances, the will must be written.
  • The will must be signed unless your parent is unable to due to an illness, accident, or disability. If that’s the case, your parent should designate someone to sign for them in their presence.
  • Your parent’s signature must be notarized and witnessed by at least two competent adults.[08]
If your loved one’s will doesn’t meet these requirements, the document may be deemed invalid and assets will default to being distributed by a court according to state law.

Can you write your own will?

Wills are typically best prepared by attorneys, but many states do allow a person to write their own will and have it notarized in certain circumstances. However, whether your loved one chooses to utilize an attorney or not, the will must meet state requirements for it to be considered legally binding. These requirements will vary depending on the state your parent lives in.
Some states, for instance, require any self-drafted wills to be signed and dated in the person’s own handwriting, while some allow the entire form to be typed. Other states don’t accept a handwritten will as a valid document at all.[09]
It’s incredibly important that your parent understands the unique laws in their state. Your parent can visit their state’s legal services website to learn more. Some legal sites, like FindLaw.com, also offer information on hiring an attorney and understanding each state’s laws regarding specific legal situations.
No matter how your loved one chooses to approach estate planning, it’s a good idea to have a lawyer review the handwritten or typed will to ensure that it meets state requirements and would be considered a valid document.

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When to involve an attorney

If your loved one’s situation is fairly simple — say they have modest assets and want to leave them to their closest surviving relative — then it may be more cost-effective to write their own will without an attorney. However, the more complicated their circumstances, the more risky it is to proceed without legal advice.
Without an attorney’s help, the document may be written incorrectly or accidentally leave certain assets or circumstances unaddressed. For that reason, many states actually require that people with complex wills and certain estate planning situations obtain a lawyer. If there’s any doubt about how complex your loved one’s estate is, it may be best to play it safe and hire an attorney.

Online templates and software

If your loved one has determined that their state accepts self-drafted wills and they fully understand their state’s requirements, there are a number of online forms, templates, and software that can help them draft their will. Keep in mind that even if they fill out an online template or type the form themselves, they’ll likely still need to sign and date the form in their own handwriting.
One free resource is the American Red Cross’ partnership with FreeWill, an internet-based tool that provides step-by-step instructions for preparing a will. If your loved one has a simple estate, they can fill out the form, print it, and have it signed and witnessed. If their estate is more complex, the tool can help them find a qualified attorney to help validate and finalize their plans.
While the American Red Cross is generally very reliable, it’s important to be aware that all online legal forms are not created equal. Many online will forms, templates, and other do-it-yourself tools aren’t regulated and may actually violate some states’ unauthorized practice of law statutes and, therefore, should be used with caution.[10]

For help planning your family’s next steps

Helping a loved one with estate planning can be tough to even think about, but it’s vitally important. For assistance with wills and other legal matters such as living wills or power of attorney, use the American Bar Association’s Find Legal Help tool or the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys’ Find a Lawyer search feature.


  1. American Bar Association. Introduction to Wills.

  2. Goddard Gamage LLP. What are estate assets?

  3. Cavataio, L., Singer, S. Choosing an Executor or Trustee. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC).

  4. Singer, S. E., Bekman, S. V. IRAs and IRA Beneficiaries. The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC).

  5. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Filing Requirements, Status, Dependents.

  6. American Bar Association. (2013, March 18). Wills and Estates.

  7. Arias, E. K., Mast, K. L. S. Can I Do a Will for Myself? The American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC).

  8. American Bar Association. Do It Yourself Estate Planning.

Meet the Author
Grace Styron

Grace Styron is a writer at OurParents specializing in assistive technology, memory care, and home care. Before writing about healthy aging, she worked for an online women’s lifestyle magazine and as a grant writer for a nonprofit regenerative permaculture farm in Virginia. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Missouri State University.

Edited byKristin Carroll
Reviewed byDenise Lettau

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