Dear PoPville – How Do I Make a Will and Testiment in DC?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Tyrannous

“Dear PoPville,

Looks like I am going to have to well and truly outgrow my college days. For various boring reasons (don’t worry I’m not dying) it seems I need to write a will. Well this is something I had never thought about and don’t really know where to start. First, what are the rules for DC? (Is this a state or federal regulated thing anyway?) I’d rather not have to shell out a bunch of money I don’t have to a lawyer and I did a quick search on the internet and there are sites that will sell you ‘prepacked’ will, but I have no idea whether these are legally binding or not. Has anyone else been through this process and have some wisdom to share?”

40 Comment

  • do it on

    hubby and I did it and it about a year ago, it was easy and they mail you the documents, they are legit.

  • Seriously, go see a lawyer. Unless you have some complicated finances and/or requests, it should not cost more than a few hundred dollars.

    • Lawyers start at $300/hour. After a consultation, having him/her + paralegal “write it up” (aka, copy an existing doc but charge you for a full one), have you check it and do a second consult, notarize, etc., you’re looking at 2-4 hours of work and $1K at least!

      Sometimes a CPA/CFP can help with a basic one, but I agree that it is worth having a legit lawyer do one EVEN if it’s going to be 1K on the low end.

      Also, if you have an IRA, 401K, life insurance, or other non-probate asset, make sure you name a beneficiary. These assets fall outside of probate and bypass wills if you name a beneficiary, which is tax-beneficial to your heir(s). Not naming a beneficiary is literally throwing money down the drain to Uncle Sam for your survivors.

  • It really depends on how much you need to distribute (i.e., if you’re rich and have a lot of stuff, get a lawyer), but a valid and enforceable will actually is pretty simple:

    – You need to be 18;
    – it needs to be written and signed by you; and
    – you need two witnesses to sign it … neither of whom you plan to leave anything and both of whom watched you sign it and say something to the effect of “I attest that this is my will.”

    That’ll do it. After that, you could just write what you have and where you want it to go.

    It’s in the DC Code online if you’re interested — Title 18-102 and up. But honestly, if your reasons for needing a will are serious and involve something like child custody, I wouldn’t go the DIY route.

    • BTW, way better than a will: keep as much of your property away from probate. Make bank accounts joint with your wife, jointly title property, designate a beneficiary on any life insurance policy or retirement plans. Again, not knowing your reasons for needing a will, this is just general commonsense. Once you’re dead, unless you’re a really cruel SOB, you shouldn’t want the probate court directing any more of the dispensation of your stuff than is necessary.

      • +1 – this is really important. Joint titles and joint accounts and named beneficiaries are the single best thing most people can do for preserving their estate’s value.

        Beyond that though, I’d go with a lawyer, especially if there are child custody issues. Find someone who will prepare and witness your will for a flat fee.

      • And what happens if you and your wife are both killed in the same accident?

        Then your joint tenancy means all your property is dictated by your will. Then if you have no will it is all intestate.

  • Quicken WillMaker does a good job, offers “state” specific items. Also has documents for you to create living wills and other hints and tips on what other aspects of estate planning are important to deal with in advance. About $45 bucks online.

  • I know it’s expensive, but if you’re trying to do anything more complicated than leave everything to your spouse or child, ESPECIALLY if you have minor children or are setting up a trust, you should go see a lawyer. Websites are easy and cheap but are not always legally binding, especially if the will is contested. Lawyers will also think about questions you didn’t think of (who is your executor going to be? Who would get the money if your primary beneficiary dies? How will money be split between multiple beneficiaries? Will you require that assets be sold and profits distributed or will you let beneficiaries figure that out?). And once you invest the money in doing it the first time, it’s way less expensive to re-do it if you have changes down the line.

  • Okay, so along these lines, anyone have a suggestion for a firm that does estate law, prepares wills, etc.?

    I know there are 500,000 lawyers in DC, but there are very few estate/tax law firms here it seems, just like there are vey few constitutional lawyers in New York or LA.

    Anyway suggestions, recommendations? Other than searching the phone book?

    • I had Nick at Brookland Legal Services handle my will ( Seemed like a straight talker, wasn’t too expensive. Haven’t tested out the will yet but really would just as soon not.

    • I like Wright & Batchelor, well…I like Clay Batchelor, I haven’t worked with Donald.

    • Yes, I do this type of work in DC. My focus is on people that just started families and want to set their legal affairs in order. Every estate plan I do is flat fixed fee so you know what the costs will be before moving forward. (I usually do at least a Will, Advanced Medical Directive and Durable Power of Attorney for all my clients).

      Feel free to peruse my website, I twitter at and blog at

      If you have any questions, do not hesitate to give me a call. I have recommended people to LegalZoom if they do not have much to protect because I do not consider them a competitor, in the least.

  • Its easy for me. I am an unmarried only child. If I die before my parents, it all goes to them. If I’m married when I die, it goes to my wife.

    I doubt my dog will be challenging this in the courts.

    • My cat will. He tries to trip me going down the stairs all the time.

      He’s just waiting for his opportunity.

  • snark on.

    testiment? What is that?

    Come on people, at least learn how to use a spellchecker.

  • It’s too bad you are not right if you don’t have a will.

    See Question 2, c

  • Come to our yard sale on Saturday. I’ll be offering several do-it-yourself will kits–all very reputable. That’s how we did ours.

  • Thanks for all your help!
    I have been asked to do this, naming my partner as the beneficiary, as part of a domestic partnership affidavit, which I require to get healthcare benefits for my partner. Don’t ask me why we need the will, but apparently we do. Since there aren’t any complicated issues with children etc it sounds like an online version might be just the ticket for me. Thanks again.

    • That’s actually a really smart idea for same-sex couples.

      If you put as much as you can into non-probate assets or beneficiary-based assets, you can name anyone you want, even a complete stranger as beneficiary, so it doesn’t matter what the f’ your will does or doesn’t say.

      That said, given the complexities and potential issues from a family member coming back and suing or something, I would advise all same-sex couples to go to a lawyer to design an airtight will to make sure your wishes are adhered to. It’s also good if a family member comes back and makes demands, then you already have a lawyer you like/trust.

      • Interesting. How do I go about getting a complete stranger to name me as a beneficiary in their will? Preference given to wealthy, aged complete strangers.

      • For same-sex couples, you definitely should go to a lawyer and depending on the couples relationship with other family members, the preferred method (at least in DC) is a trust because of the privacy it affords v. a will.

  • I used LegalZoom and when I died my heirs had no issues!

  • I used Max Barger at Ackerman Legal over in Dupont Circle. I did a will, financial power of attorney and medical directives prior to leaving on an overseas assignment about a year and a half ago. His price was really reasonable – and he did a good job. I would give them a call. 202.393.5428

    • Just a note on Legal Zoom. They used to have a disclaimer that they were not dispensing legal advice. What I mean by this is that they don’t stand behind their product as being legal advice because they can’t legally do so under the rules of professional responsibility.

      I am not saying it is a bad product, it may very well be correct and valid under the laws of DC. What I am saying is that it is not the substitute for an actual practitioner dispensing legal advice and they don’t guarantee it to be. If you have any complicated issues, caveat emptor.

  • Living Revocable Trusts. Will do not protect your from probate. Get and fund a living revocable trust. Retitle all your assets under that trust. Get Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship for any real estate.

Comments are closed.