One of the most important financial documents you can have is the one you’re least likely to want to use: a will. That’s probably why so few people have one. Not only is thinking about death a rather depressing thing to do with your weekend, but a will is also a legal document, which means lawyers might be involved: never a pleasant, or inexpensive, proposition.
Here’s an email I received recently. See if you can relate…
I recognize the importance of creating a will. As a college student with a young family, I feel that this is an important piece of providing security for my family. However, I do not currently have the money to hire a lawyer to write one. Is there a cheaper easier way to write a will? I have heard that there are websites that can guide you through the process of creating a simple will? Is this true? Can you recommend a reputable source for more information? Thanks.
The short answer to your question, Kevin, is yes. There are websites and software that can help you write a simple will inexpensively. And because legal documents like wills often involve standard language known as “boilerplate,” software is a seemingly logical place to save some serious cash over hiring a lawyer to prepare a will.
Unfortunately, however, software isn’t always up to the task. For example, in this recent article, Consumer Reports reviewed three software solutions for creating your own will: LegalZoom ($69), Rocket Lawyer (Free for seven days. After that, $19.95 a month or $119 a year for the Basic Legal Plan), and Quicken WillMaker Plus ($25 to $50 at various retail outlets or $34.99 download.) Their conclusion?
All three are better than nothing if you have no will. But unless your needs are very simple – say, you want to leave everything to your spouse with no other provisions – none of them is likely to meet your needs. And we found problems with all three.
The problems they found included outdated information, inability to adequately customize, incompleteness, and too much or too little flexibility.
On the other hand, nolo.com – a great place to get all manner of legal information and advice – says that online wills are fine for most people. From this article on their site…
If you’re like most people, you won’t need a lawyer. With good self-help materials, it’s not difficult to make a will that takes care of basic concerns, such as leaving a home, investments, a small business and personal items to your loved ones. And if you have young children, you can use your will to name a guardian to take care of them, as well as someone to manage any property they inherit.
Do keep in mind, however, that nolo.com sells their own online will ($69) as well as marketing the Quicken product above, so their advice may not be as objective as that from Consumer Reports.
In any case, some sources suggest a will is a perfectly fine DIY project, others stick with the old adage “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” What’s a responsible consumer to do?
If you absolutely can’t afford a lawyer (Kevin, along with a few people I know)
Kevin says, “I do not currently have the money to hire a lawyer to write one.” I was unsuccessful in finding out the average cost to hire a lawyer to prepare a will, and the price will obviously differ radically depending on the complexity of the will and the lawyer you choose, but my guess would be that a lawyer would charge from several hundred to a thousand dollars to prepare a will. If Kevin doesn’t have that kind of money, he should definitely do an online will, and the sooner the better. Like Consumer Reports said, something’s better than nothing.
When Kevin gets a bit more flush, he should take his DIY will to a lawyer for review.
If you’re totally rich and can easily afford a lawyer (nobody I know)
Go spend whatever it takes and pay your lawyer $300 an hour to walk you through the entire process. Your bill will be huge, but you’ll feel important.
If you’re somewhere in between (me and most people I know)
Download a software program, take the interview and create your will. Then take it to a lawyer for review. Why spend money on both? Because the most difficult and time-consuming part of putting together an estate plan is figuring out what to do with your stuff and your minor children. (Who will become the kid’s guardian? What if that person dies before you do? Who will be the executor of your will? What if they die before you do? You get the idea…)
The hardest part of creating a will is answering questions and deciding who and what goes where. What you don’t want is to pay a lawyer $300 an hour to walk you through this type of interview. Using software will help you with the numerous decisions you’ll be making and create the boilerplate. Then having it briefly reviewed by a lawyer will help you make sure it’s legal and that you’ve covered all the bases.
Maybe the lawyer won’t find anything that needs to be changed with your DIY will and won’t charge for the review. (That was a joke.) Maybe the lawyer will tell you that it would cost more for them to review your DIY than to use their boilerplate. That’s OK. The $30 to $70 you spend on will-making software will still pay for itself several times over in the lawyer’s office. And if you only have to spend a couple of hundred on a good lawyer, it’s money well spent.