DIY-ing Your Will – The Pros and Cons

When you go couch diving, what do you find? For me, it’s mostly crumbs and occasionally my phone, having slipped out of my pocket. For Aretha Franklin’s children, it was her final wishes.

The first page of Aretha Franklin’s official will.
When the Queen of Soul died in 2018, her family thought she died without a will. But months after her death, two handwritten documents purporting to be her will were found in her home – one in a locked cabinet, one in a spiral notebook buried under a couch cushion. Last week, after four years of litigation, a Michigan probate court determined the latter to represent Franklin’s final wishes.

All of which brings to mind the question, how have you expressed your final wishes? Surely, your wish is not for your family to end up in court, battling each other, bleeding money in court costs and attorney’s fees, all while grieving the loss of you. Fortunately, if you live in California (or Michigan, apparently), you can handwrite your own will at no cost in five – yes, five – minutes. That’s surely time well spent to eliminate the cost and agony of protracted court battle for your loved ones.

A handwritten will is called a holographic will, and it is a completely valid legal document for passing your assets to your heirs in California. The only requirements of a holographic will are that it is written by you, in your own hand, and signed by you. You can use a typed form – there are several available online – but all blanks must be filled out by your hand, in ink. You do not need to have this document notarized or witnessed, though these extra steps are helpful in proving that the document represents your well-considered intentions. Generally, holographic wills are short, but they can be any length and contain any amount of detail you wish. 

Here’s the trick with holographic wills, though: if you have one, you’re likely to have more than one. This being DIY estate planning, you are likely to fall into the trap I often find myself in when looking for the extra house key I had made for visitors, or the receipt for the new bathroom sink I bought last year – you know you have it, but you don’t know where it is. You’re not a professional and you don’t have systems in place to manage these details. So you’re likely to write another one, and put that somewhere else you won’t remember. Then you have the situation that Aretha Franklin’s family struggled with for four years – first, no one could find a will, then too many were found, leading to disagreement about which will controls. 

Another problem with DIY estate planning is, put simply, you don’t know what you don’t know. There are myriad ways in which an estate planning professional can help you save money in taxes – including property, income, and estate taxes – and fees, including the fees your family would pay in probate to actualize the wishes you expressed in your holographic will.

That said, if you are a California resident whose total assets are less than $166,000 and you don’t own real estate, a holographic will is an incredible tool. It will help your family avoid conflict at a time when they will need each other most, grieving the loss of you. What a wonderful gift to give in five minutes.

If you do own real estate in California or have assets worth more than $166,000, an estate planning professional could help you and your family save far more than the few thousand dollars it will cost to put together a comprehensive plan. With a comprehensive plan, you can make plans for who will raise your children, how your business should be wound up, and what care should be provided to you in your final days, to name just a few options. You can also avoid probate altogether, keeping your family entirely out of court and the details of your final wishes off the public record. (The image above from Aretha Franklin’s will is freely available on the Internet, not just because she is a celebrity, but also because her will is a public record of the Michigan probate court.)

Jane Legal can create this comprehensive plan for you, with many additional benefits, including a complete financial inventory, digital asset planning, and preserving your stories, memories and values for your loved ones to cherish after you’re gone. Schedule a free 15-minute discovery call to learn more about our Family Wealth Planning process.

This article is a service of Jane Legal PC. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a free Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been and make all the best choices for your chosen family. Begin the process by scheduling a 15-minute discovery call today.

This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA, tax, legal, or investment advice. If you are seeking legal advice specific to your needs, such services should be obtained separately from this educational material.


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