Ask Stacy: Can I Write My Own Will?

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As any financial adviser worth their salt will tell you, having a will is mandatory, no matter your age or net worth.

A will doesn’t have to cost a lot. But this week’s reader question is from someone who would rather pay nothing by simply writing a will on a piece of paper.

I have received various answers to this question, Stacy. Can you tell me if I can write my own will (my permanent address is in Florida), and if so, have it witnessed and should it be notarized?

Also, can you give me a source to properly know why a power of attorney is necessary even if one is not incapacitated — or perhaps you can give me an answer to that. I have been told I should have one, but keep it in a safe place. Why? And that it is automatically invalid when I die and my will takes over. — J

Before we answer J’s question, here’s a video we shot a few months ago that might provide some answers. It’s called “Estate Planning Documents You Need Right Now.”

Can you write your own will?

When you die, your estate is born. The person in charge of your estate, known as the executor or administrator, will be given the authority to dispose of your remains according to your wishes, distribute your money and possessions, and provide for the care of any minor children you leave behind.

How does the executor get named and know what to do with your body, possessions and children? It’s all spelled out in your will. If you die without one, these decisions will still be made. They’ll just be made by a court instead of you.

There are several ways to get a will. The traditional way is to visit a lawyer and pay them from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on your situation and their rates. A less expensive option to create a will is by using software and/or online forms and doing it yourself for $100 or less.

The final, and free, option is to write your own will from scratch. This is known as a holographic will.

Here’s a list from Nolo.com of the 26 states where holographic wills are recognized by courts. There are a few additional states that accept holographic wills from soldiers at war or sailors at sea, but those wills become invalid after discharge from the military or returning to shore. You’ll note that Florida, where J lives, isn’t on the list.

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina (if found after death in place intended for safekeeping)
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

Even if you can, why would you?

It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars to create a will, especially if your estate is small. But scratching it out yourself on a piece of paper? In my opinion, that’s the epitome of penny-wise and pound-foolish.

If you want to create your own will, at least use professionally prepared and approved online forms or software to do it. If J is computer literate enough to send me a question via email, J probably has what it takes to use one of those products. If J doesn’t, J should find someone who can help. Potential sources:

  • Nolo — online wills and software from $34.95.
  • LegalZoom – Basic, $69; Deluxe, $79.
  • Rocket Lawyer – free one-week trial, membership for $39.95 a month.

As you can see, prices aren’t astronomical. And because these solutions do the vast majority of the work for you, there’s no reason to attempt a holographic will.

Now for J’s next question:

Why is a power of attorney necessary even if one is not incapacitated?

The short answer: A power of attorney is rarely necessary if one is not incapacitated. However, should you become incapacitated without one, it will be too late.

It’s like dying without a will. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a will as long as you’re alive, but it’s very hard to draft one when you’re not.

So it’s important to draft a power of attorney, or POA, while you’re still functional. Then, should you become either mentally or physically unable to make decisions, you’ve already named someone you trust (typically called an agent) to act on your behalf. They’ll be able to do everything you’d do yourself, from paying the water bill to taking care of insurance claims.

However, since your agent may also have the authority to drain your bank account, don’t give this task to just anyone. They may literally have your life — financial and otherwise — in their hands.

We recently published an article called “Have You Got the Power … of Attorney, That Is?” It said there are several special types of power of attorney you can use:

  • Durable power of attorney. This POA gives someone the ability to manage your finances even after you’ve become incapacitated.
  • Limited power of attorney. This document gives an agent POA abilities for a limited time or only for certain purposes.
  • Medical power of attorney. This is the POA that allows others to make medical decisions on your behalf.

What if you don’t get a power of attorney?

If you die without a will, a court will decide where your kids and property go. If you become mentally or physically incapacitated without a power of attorney, a court will decide who gets to make financial decisions on your behalf.

Imagine you have progressive dementia and suddenly start sending your life savings to Nigerian scam artists. Your kids want to protect you from yourself, but they don’t have the legal authority to intervene. The only thing they can do is hire a lawyer, go into a public courtroom and convince a judge you can’t manage your affairs.

Sound like family fun? If not, naming a power of attorney before you need one is a good idea.

Powers of attorney, both medical and durable, are generally included in the estate planning process, so if you use either a lawyer or the kits above, there’s no additional expense to create one.

As for J’s question about keeping powers of attorney in a safe place: Yes, all of your estate planning documents should be kept in a safe place. The agent named in the power of attorney will need to produce it for it to be of any use, so they’ll need access to it. Which means, unless the person named as your agent has access to your safe deposit box, keeping a power of attorney there isn’t a good idea.

If you use an attorney, have the attorney keep originals and keep copies at home. If you don’t, find the safest possible place for both your powers of attorney and will, and tell those affected where they are.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

About Stacy

Stacy Johnson founded Money Talks News in 1991.He’s earned a CPA (now inactive), and has also been licensed in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate.You can learn more about him here.

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Comments & discussion

We welcome your opinions, but let’s keep it civil. Like many businesses, we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. In our case, that means those who communicate by name-calling, racism, using words designed to hurt others or generally acting like an uninformed bully. Also, comments that include links to email addresses or commercial websites typically aren't posted. This isn't a place to advertise your business.

  • Judy

    I don’t know about other states, but the web site in Nevada for the Office of the Secretary of State provides several blank forms to be used when making final arrangements for ones self, i.e. Durable Power of Attorney, Specific Power of Attorney, General Power of Attorney, donation of organs, etc. These are free; further, the office provides a secure online site in which to store such info. Having worked over three decades in the escrow/title business, I can tell you that a will is never sufficient when it comes to real property. It should also be noted that, depending upon the particular real property ownership laws within any given state, great care should be taken as to exactly how to hold title to real property. One more thought, especially for those “do it yourselfers”: does your state have an inheritance tax?

    • Kent

      So a will is not sufficient for real property, then what is?

  • Tom

    While it doesn’t totally negate the need for a will, having property such as real estate, automobiles, financial accounts, etc held with survivorship (and contingent survivorship) can assure those assets go as you intend.

  • Diane

    I did legal zoom for my mom and wound up regretting it. It was very difficult to get two people to witness her signature after we received the papers and I could not find one attorney that would handle the matter since they did not draw up the papers. Make sure you have two witnesses before you get involved with the do it your self places,that is my advice. In the long run,it was money wasted and then I was ripped off by an attorney who basically rewrote what was given to him and charged an arm and a leg. The main issue was also due to the fact that if you are named in the will,you can not witness the will and my mom has no friends,it was not worth the hassle. Some states have senior centers where they might help seniors with this problem. Rocket Lawyer is exactly the same premise as legal zoom. Also I was charged for a health care proxy which in reality does not need an attorney,just two signatures witnessing persons signature.