Should I write my own will?

Lawyers are expensive. We get it. The terminology they use can be baffling and in some cases even feel like a foreign language. You don’t like feeling like you’re on the clock with them every time you talk to one. So we get why you’re asking the question of whether or not you should write your own will. And like most things that involve either money or planning for your family and your estate, the answer is a big, fat, “Maybe.”

But enough wishy-washiness. In general, the more straightforward and less complicated your situation and your wishes are, the more likely it is that you can pull off writing your own will without causing problems for yourself. As your estate and your family situation grows in complexity, you may find that your ability to craft a legal document that can stand up to potential challenges in court becomes diminished, not because you aren’t a good writer, but probably because you aren’t a good lawyer. There’s a reason why lawyers go to three years of school before they even attempt to take the bar exam.

Let’s first examine a basic situation. You’re 25 years old. You have a $10,000 401(k) to your name. Maybe you have a car. You rent an apartment because you came to the conclusion that you’d rather rent than buy at that point in your life. In general, most 25-year-olds don’t feel like they need a will. But if you’re hyper-vigilant about your financial situation and you want to make sure you leave nothing to chance, writing a will in that situation is pretty simple. Your 401(k) likely has beneficiaries designated to begin with, you don’t have any real estate to account for, and no one wants your beat-up 1997 Toyota Sienna minivan with 250,000 miles on it anyways. Sorry, it’s just not in high demand. So it would be pretty simple to go and write a will spelling out that all of your possessions go to your brother, sister, or cousins if you happen to pass away at age 25. There’s not much that can go wrong, because you don’t have much.

So you go ahead and write your will at age 25, and surprise, you’re still alive at age 40. Only your situation is a little different now. You’re married and you have two kids. You have a primary residence with a mortgage in South Carolina, and then you’ve got a vacation home in Utah because you like skiing. How’d you happen to accumulate the wealth needed to buy those places? Well, you run a business where you’re a 40% owner, though there are five other owners with smaller stakes as well. And on top of that, you have a number of different investment accounts, and you’ve set up a small non-profit to tackle hunger in your local community.

Think you can write a will that addresses all of that?

I’m not saying you can’t. I’m saying that for most of us, we don’t know what we don’t know, and when it comes to law and money, that can be a lot of information. That can be really, really costly when it comes to managing how your estate will be handled after you and/or your spouse passes. Yes, getting an attorney to draft a proper will may cost you a few hundred dollars. If it’s more complex, it may cost you a few thousand dollars. But if you end up with an estate with multiple pieces that have a level of complexity that goes beyond just you owning everything yourself, a few thousand dollars is a pittance compared to what it may cost your heirs to deal with if you draft your will on your own and you get something wrong.

I don’t trust myself to write my own legal documents. I don’t write my power of attorney. I don’t write my healthcare proxy. I get someone else to do it because the cost of doing that is minimal compared to the cost I would have to pay if I did it myself, with something being possibly incorrect on the back end. I do the same thing with my house. Have to paint? Yup, I can do that. It’s pretty simple, and if I mess up, the cost of repainting is cheap. Have to run a new gas line? Well, if I do that wrong, my house is probably blowing up. I view legal documents the same way.

As your level of risk rises based on the size and complexity of your estate, the need for a professional to handle it rises as well. Don’t blow up your estate plan to save a few bucks.