California is one of only four states that allow statutory wills, a preprinted will form where you can simply check boxes and sign beneath each paragraph. This makes it possible to write a will for free in the state, but it also limits the nature of your bequests. Your only options are those included in the form; if you cross anything out or add anything extra, your will is invalidated.
Access a statutory will form specific to California. The State Bar of California offers one. You can also usually get one at your county courthouse. There is no charge.
Create a comprehensive list of all your assets of sentimental or monetary value. California is a community property state, so if you’re married, you can only bequeath your half of anything you and your spouse acquired after the date of your marriage. Community property law does not consider the other half as being yours to give away.
Decide to whom you want to leave each item of your property. The California statutory will limits you to three choices for each asset: your spouse or domestic partner, your children and grandchildren, or another individual. If you choose your spouse or domestic partner and he dies before you do, the asset passes to your children instead.
Fill in the statutory will form, checking the appropriate boxes to reflect your choices regarding your assets and beneficiaries. If you have children, you will also have to complete paragraph 6, naming a guardian for them in the event their other parent dies before you do.
Choose an executor, the person you want to oversee probate of your will and to make sure your property goes to the beneficiaries you’ve selected. Check with the person you choose to make sure he’s willing to do the job. Paragraph 8 of the California statutory will allows you to also choose two additional “backup” executors in case your first choice dies before you do or is otherwise unable to serve.
Decide whether you want your executor to post a bond prior to settling your estate. A bond is an insurance policy against any wrongdoing or error on his part that might result in a monetary loss. It might be appropriate if you’re leaving many complicated assets. Enter this information in paragraph 9 of your statutory will.
Gather witnesses to watch you sign your will, and to sign it themselves as well. California requires two witnesses, and they cannot be your beneficiaries.
California’s statutory will does not include a section for your wishes regarding your burial. Because you can’t add anything directly to the form without invalidating it, if you want to include directions for your funeral arrangements, do it in a separate, notarized and witnessed statement. Store the statement with your will so your executor has access to it.
If you want more flexibility than a statutory will offers, but don’t want to pay an attorney to prepare one or purchase a will kit, some websites offer will formats that you can follow to write your own. However, if you don’t hire an attorney to review it, you run the risk of making some fundamental error in formatting or language that might invalidate it.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.