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My wife and I are planning to write a will, or have one written for us. To me, it seems very simple. Our wishes are:

  1. If either my wife or I dies, the other one gets everything.
  2. If we both die before our child is 18, he goes to Bob. All our stuff goes to our child in a trust that he gets when he turns 18, to be managed by Bob until that time.

These wishes seem very simple and straightforward to me. I can't imagine them being genuinely misinterpreted.

In contrast, a basic online will template runs 10-20 pages. I can imagine this complexity being justified if I had a complex estate in the future, but for now it seems excessive.

Can anyone point towards specific cases where someone with a similar will has run into major problems because they wrote a simple will instead of the complex legalese one?

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  • A famous example of a simple will in plain English. It can be done. Note, there is only one contingency; your case is already far more complex as the answers show. This is to highlight what a "simple will" actually is. m.thestar.com/#/article/news/canada/2013/10/26/…
    – user662852
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 13:36
  • Does #2 imply "simultaneously"? 'Cause otherwise #1 and #2 conflict. You die and leave all to your wife, according to #1. Then she dies, a year later, before the child is 18. Her new will can ignore #2, as written, and do what she wants with her inheritance...
    – DJohnM
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 20:13
  • Who is "my wife"? You put that in your will, you remarry, and when you die there is the biggest trouble. I know a woman who got nothing from her husband, instead the woman he divorced 30 years ago got everything. What if you have another child? What does "to be managed by Bob" mean? At the very, very least show this to a lawyer.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 7, 2023 at 9:44
  • in germany, the first clause you propose is commonly called "Berliner Testament", though that is a little more in depth.
    – Trish
    Commented Apr 7, 2023 at 20:56

4 Answers 4

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Legalese is not required

You can and should write a will in plain English. However, you need to ensure that your simple wishes can:

  1. Actually be understood,
  2. Actually be implemented,
  3. Don't have unintended consequences,
  4. Cover all bases.

Use a lawyer

I suggest that you write your simple wishes out as you have done and take them to a lawyer. A good lawyer will be able to:

  1. Draft a will and have it executed so that it complies with the law,
  2. Keep a copy of the will so that your executor can find the damn thing without having to tear your house apart,
  3. Consider the contingencies that you haven't.

My lawyer charged me and my wife $150 each - 20 years latter the estate has twice as many children and would be worth several million dollars; I consider it one of the cheapest pieces of insurance I have ever bought.

Contingencies

  1. Who is the executor of the will? This is the person who administers the estate until it is finalised. As written, you haven't named one: in most jurisdictions this makes the government's Public Trustee the executor.
  2. How and how much will the executor get paid? Executor's are entitled to be paid for their services.
  3. What happens if you and your wife are separated or divorced at the time of your death? Wills are not automatically terminated by these events.
  4. What if Bob is dead before you die? Or has emigrated? Or is insane?
  5. What if Bob dies in the same car crash that kills you and your wife?
  6. What if Bob dies after he becomes the trustee of the trust?
  7. Who will be your child's guardian? As written, Bob is responsible for the finances but he is not the guardian. The child would be reliant on kinship guardianship or become a ward of the state.
  8. For what purposes can Bob use the trust money? Education of the child? Vacations for the child? His own gambling problem?
  9. Can the trust borrow money?
  10. What types of investments can the trust make? Bolivian palm tree futures anyone?
  11. Does Bob need to get professional financial advice about this?
  12. Who will audit the trust to ensure Bob is behaving appropriately?
  13. Your wife falls pregnant tomorrow. Do you want to write a new will or have one that works no matter how many children you have?
  14. What if all 3 of you die in the same car crash? Who gets the estate then?

Only people with no assets or dependants have a simple estate

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  • Great answer, except that I'm pretty sure "he goes to Bob" means that Bob becomes the child's guardian.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 5:04
  • @phoog In will? Maybe not. That's why lawyers are needed.
    – Mary
    Commented Apr 7, 2023 at 0:34
  • @Mary I mean in the question, not in the will.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 7, 2023 at 3:53
  • @phoog Ah, but if you write that in the question, will you know what to write in the will?
    – Mary
    Commented Apr 7, 2023 at 4:11
  • All good except "keep a copy". Only an original can be admitted to probate in most jurisdictions absent compelling evidence to the contrary.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 0:06
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Can anyone point towards specific cases where someone with a similar will has run into major problems because they wrote a simple will instead of the complex legalese one?

Like every case in every Trusts and Estates textbook.

You wife? Everything goes to her? So when you divorce and remarry does your stuff go to wife A or to wife B?

Your child? What about your other child? The one who is not born yet?

Bob dies before your son. Or better yet, Bob is with you and your wife when you all die.

EDIT TO ADD:
There are two legal fictions that are used in imagining the possibilities, the fertile octogenarian and the promiscuous toddler.

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@jqning pointed out some practical considerations of going the DIY route. So I'll approach it differently...

I suggest you conduct the following thought experiment:

I assume, like most people, you have worked at least one job before? Maybe you have had a career in a profession? Maybe not. It doesn't matter for the purpose of this thought experiment.

Fix your mind on your experience in one of those jobs. Imagine all the little details, nuances, tricks and knowledge you gained by experience over time to help you do that job well. Now imagine somebody walking in off the street and on the first day trying to do that job with no training or experience. How well do you think they will perform the first time? Now, if they stick with it and get training and experience they will improve and might do well. But not the first time.

Now let's say they are given an example of what to do. Written by professionals in the job they are trying to do for the first time and the professionals say, "Do it this way."

But the new person knows better and says, "No, I don't need to do it that way. That way is too complicated. All I need is to do it this much simpler way (that I'll just make up off-the-cuff) and it'll be much better."

How do you think that will work out?

Friend, if you insist on DIY lawyering, the least you can do is follow exactly what the professionals have laid out for you. Otherwise, I am certain you will wish you had. Or in this case, your heirs will.

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  • 3
    I'm a thermal engineer, which just so happens to be similar to a lawyer in terms of training and pay rate. If you wanted to keep your fish pond from freezing and asked me to design you a system I would tell you to go on Amazon and buy the thing that does that for you. It would be a waste of my time and your money for me to build you a custom system. If you want to build a power plant, then I am well worth your money. I totally agree that I should hire a lawyer in some cases. My question rephrased is, why is this specific case complex enough to warrant a lawyer?
    – ericksonla
    Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 4:11
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    @ericksonia: The answer to your question is simple: the law is complex by nature and design; (Remember, the law is designed by lawyers. Everyone wants job security.) So let's continue the analogy... the analog of "going to Amazon and buying the thing that does that" is "buying a basic online will template." Your question is analogous to, "Should I throw out the instructions that came with the thing from Amazon and make up my own way of installing it?" My answer: "No. You should not. You should follow the instructions for the thing you bought at Amazon so you have a chance of doing it right." Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 4:26
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    @ericksonla buying a system from Amazon is more closely analogous to using a template prepared by a lawyer to create a will than to writing it yourself.
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 7, 2023 at 6:45
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There are a number of available will generation programs, which you can install on your computer and use. Generally these ask you a series of questions, and based on your answers will generate a will using tested language that will stand up in court, and will get the results you wish. The language is tailored to any specific rules in your state or jurisdiction.

The output also includes specific instructions on how to sign the will (or other document) so that it is binding, what needs to be notarized, etc.

Such programs will also advise you if the kind of will you want is more complex than can be handled with the program, so that a lawyer is advisable. I have used such a program myself. I would urge someone with wishes of about the level of complexity suggested by the original question here to use such a program. I also assisted both my parents to generate documents including POAs using such a program.

The program I used (now out of date) and others I have seen will also create both financial and health care powers of attorney, living wills, trusts for children or other dependents, and various similar and related documents. Basic identity information is reused from document to document, so it need not be retyped.

Such a program is, in my view, a good value for money.

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  • I would not recommend it. A simple will doesn't cost much, and what you get is issue spotting that a program can't provide. Often the big problems flow from definitional misunderstandings and top level conceptual misunderstandings that cause people to misunderstand a computer program's questions.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 0:03

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