Making a will is on no one's list of "fun things to do in your free time." It certainly has never been on mine. But then I decided to become a hospice volunteer. Shortly after that (and before I could actually put my 40 hours of training to less emotionally intense use) my best friend's mom began her long, slow, journey towards the end of life. At that point, a good friend and I decided to sign up for a "Make A Will" class together through a program in my city called Leisure Learning. By the end of the class, I was 75% of the way towards drafting a personal will. However, to this day I’m still not done with my will. The truth is, making a will isn’t easy—not on any level. But what is even less easy—much more difficult really—is knowing that if I don't make a will, guess who will get most of what I hope to leave to loved ones? That's right—the Internal Revenue Service.

Having spent most of my life attempting to avoid giving the IRS any more of my money than is absolutely legally necessary, I certainly don't want to give them easy access to my finances after my demise! If you, like me, are stuck in the middle phases of making your will (or haven’t yet started), I hope what I’m learning about the high costs of not making a will might be motivational and encouraging to you too!

Will-making terms you need to know

First, here are a few essential terms you’ll encounter —will-making is like learning a new language, so if you think of it that way you won't be so intimidated.

  • Testate: This means that when you pass, you have a legal will that outlines your intentions for 100% of your assets clearly.
  • Intestate: This means that when you pass, you do so without a legal will and you don't get any input into how your assets are distributed. Your estate will pass through probate, when a court-appointed administrator will first deduct any administration fees before processing the remainder of your assets according to the laws in your state of residence.
  • Partial intestate: This means that when you pass, you have a legal will but it only outlines your intentions for some of your assets. The rest are considered intestate and must pass through probate before being dispersed.
  • Probate: Probate is the process a will passes through to ensure it’s a) authentic, and b) valid, before the executor (if a partial or full will is available) or administrator (if no executor is named and there’s only a partial or no will) begins legal dispersal of the assets.

Prerequisites to making a legally valid will 

  • Wait until you are 18 years of age: Unless you’re married or serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, you must be at least 18 years old to make a will that will be legally valid in any U.S. state.
  • Create a legally valid will for your state: What makes a will valid in one state may not necessarily hold true for other states. The important criterion here is that the will must be valid in the state you reside in.
  • Review your will regularly: If your assets or wishes change, but you don’t change your will accordingly, the will that’s legal and valid at the time of your demise will be the will that is enforced.
  • Include these important details:  
    • Write out that you’re of sound mind and judgment.
    • Write out that you’re 18 years of age or older (or married, or in the U.S. Armed Forces).
    • Write out what state you were residing in when the will was made.
    • Write out who your Executor is—also include a second choice and be sure you call that person an "Independent Executor."
    • Get your will witnessed by two persons over the age of 14 in the presence of a notary.
    • Sign the will yourself (very important!)
    • Include a "Self Proving Affadavit" to prove you were of sound mind.
  • Be sure your chosen Executor agrees to his or her duties: If the Executor (legal representative of your estate) doesn’t agree to his or her duties, probate will take longer as the court will need to appoint an administrator, who will be paid by the estate (and may not be so careful about those charges as would an Executor whom you personally appoint).

5 pricing options for your will 

Today there are so many online resources that many people opt for a do-it-yourself approach to will making. Unless your finances—or your heirs’—are very complicated, you’ll want to investigate the first four options before considering legal assistance.

  • Free: If you do your will yourself using a paper form you download from the Internet, just be sure it’s the most recent legally valid will template for your state of residence.
  • Paper will forms: Paper forms are still available at most office supply stores and online office supply companies. Depending on which forms you need, expect to pay between $5 and $20 for the forms.
  • Online will software: Online will software can be an easy choice since the software is set up to guide you through the process. Software to make a simple will is around $20. Software for more complicated wills can range up into a couple hundred dollars or more.
  • Will class: If you decide to take a will-making class like I did, you might not have to pay anything or you might pay a small fee (my class was $60 plus a $15 materials fee). If you contact local universities or non-profit organizations you can often find free will-making classes.
  • Legal counsel: Typically, your first visit with an attorney will be free of charge. After that, you can pay with an hourly rate or with a retainer (a flat fee for a set number of hours). So if you have a very simple will, you might pay a couple hundred dollars for the attorney's time and paperwork preparation. More complicated wills can range into the thousands of dollars.

A word about notary fees

Finally, even if you opt for free will preparation, you’ll still have to pay a notary fee before your will is legally admissible in court. If you go to a post office or office supply store, you’ll pay around $10 for a notary public to notarize your will. Here are a few options where you might get notary services for free.

  • Ask at your place of work: Often an administrative professional will have notary credentials and will be willing to notarize your will for free (you can also scrounge up two witnesses without extra effort this way).
  • Go to your bank: Banks sometimes provide free notary services as part of customer service.
  • Ask around in your network: If a friend or colleague is a notary, you might score free notary services!
Cost-Saving Tips to Make a Legal Will