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Ask Stacy: Can you write your own will?

Sure, you can write your own will. But why would you?

By MSN Money Partner Jul 15, 2014 1:59PM

This post comes from Stacy Johnson at partner site Money Talks News

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyAs any financial adviser worth their salt will tell you, having a will is mandatory, no matter your age or net worth.

Will © Image Source Pink/JupiterimagesA 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

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 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 go 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?

More from Money Talks News

Jul 15, 2014 7:33PM

"Where there is money, there is a relative," someone once said. I heard it in a college law course, taught long ago. And I never forgot those words. And in my lifelong experience, no truer words were ever spoken. And making a will shall not add or subtract a single day from your lifespan.

Make your will and then, be sure that your family is aware of your will and its content. With holographic wills, I very much recommend that you have yours witnessed by two persons, not related to you and then, have it notarized.

Jul 16, 2014 1:02PM
And to my mother-in-law I leave my credit cards bill, student loan, and funeral expenses. 
Jul 16, 2014 12:21AM
Be careful with holographic wills.  In some states, they have to be handwritten to be valid.  If you type it, and then sign it, the will isn't valid.  
Jul 15, 2014 7:56PM

In my case, what if my bank account agreements/contracts clearly identify the person I want to receive (close out) my savings $$$ accounts when I CROAK? She's listed as my "POD" PAY ON DEATH request?   

Jul 15, 2014 11:16PM
i'm being buried with my cheeto' there is no need for a will...just hope there isn't any orange finger prints on my head stone...
Jul 16, 2014 12:11AM
Why write a will if you have nothing anyone would want?
Jul 16, 2014 10:47AM
I have Federal, State, Civil and Banks P.O.A over my brother who is in assistance living with dementia and cancer. I told my nephew that they should have a will so they bought one on line from LegalZoom and paid $80.00. It was worthless, the very first paragraph stated; Being on sound mind and memory --- OOPS! - my brother has dementia so that went out the window. The sales catch is that you can call a LegalZoom help line lawyer and of course the charges mounts up from there.  Instead, I'm setting up what is known as:  A  "Directive" from a lawyer who specializes in wills. Once my brother dies, all my P.O.A. will be nullified and all responsibilities will be in the hands of his kids and they then can fight over whatever.  
Jul 16, 2014 8:51AM
Everyone needs a will even if it is handwritten.... just get it notarized.  
Jul 16, 2014 10:49AM
I'll write me own, thank you, since I own very little real property (which will go to my only heir, my son).
Jul 16, 2014 10:38AM

I will my milk bones to my next predecessor, preferably

a Jack Russell or a real bull terrier....unlike me.

Jul 15, 2014 7:53PM

Montana does not recognize the terms "executor" or "Administrator" and uses the terms "personal representative" instead. Probably not a deal-breaker, but why not be correct?

Wisconsin does recognize the validity of a holographic will that has been witnessed by two people, preferably disinterested people. My mother in Wisconsin went the route of writing out her will and having her signature properly notarized, but failed to have any witnesses sign the holographic will. The county probate judge that reviewed the holographic will document after my mother's death stated, "This is not a will. It is simply a statement of your mother's wishes, but has no legal bearing. Your mother died intestate."

Jul 16, 2014 3:51AM
Why do I need a will?  I have a townhouse and a car.  I have signed a quitclaim deed... put up and after i'm gone the quitclaim deed will be recorded by the person I am leaving my townhouse to and as for the car I scratched my intentions on a sheet of paper with two witnesses and notary acknowledged.
Jul 16, 2014 12:00AM
I don't know about all this stuff.  I do know a will, any will in any form, is essential.  I have seen the mess resulting from people who died with no will or indication of how they want their assets disbursed.  In one case a woman with no immediate heirs, who swore she really didn't care, died leaving the brother of her late husband to deal with her affairs.  After incurring considerable expense he got nothing. No will, not a blood relative he didn't even get reimbursed for his expenses in handling her estate.  In another a man died but the children he raised got nothing.  They were his wife's children from a previous marriage but were never legally adopted.  So in spite of the fact those children had never actually known another father they got nothing.  Write a will!!  It's easy.  You don't need a fancy form and you don't need an overpriced lawyer.  If someone close to you dies without a will, write one for them.  It may not, strictly speaking be lawful, but if there is no one to contest it it's a legal will.  Just be certain no one is going to contest it. 
Jul 16, 2014 2:18AM
There is always someone who wants to sell you something. Even if is just a few dollars. Always trying to get in your pockets SUCKERS!
Jul 15, 2014 11:13PM

Obama has killed the middle class.


They need their will read.

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