Ask Stacy: Where Can I Find a Cheap Will?

Photo (cc) by iowa_spirit_walker

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. See if you can relate.

Dear Stacy,
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.
– Kevin

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 article, Consumer Reports reviewed three software solutions for creating your own will: LegalZoom ($69), Rocket Lawyer (Free for seven days. After that, from $7 to $50 monthly, depending on the plan), and Quicken WillMaker Plus ($50). 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The problems they found included outdated information, inability to adequately customize, incompleteness, and too much or too little flexibility.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, while 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 (like Kevin)

Kevin says, “I do not currently have the money to hire a lawyer to write one.” The cost to hire a lawyer will obviously differ radically depending on the complexity of the will and the lawyer you choose, but my experience has been that a lawyer charges 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.

If even $50 is too much, Kevin can also visit his local public library, where he’ll most likely find totally free legal documents he can copy, fill out and pay nothing.

When Kevin gets a bit more flush, however, 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 $400 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 (like me and most people I know)

Find an estate planning worksheet and use it to get your ducks in a row. I did an online search and found this one free from the Presbyterian Foundation, and there are tons more online. Just do a search for “Estate Planning Worksheet.”

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 isn’t the actual document, it’s answering questions and deciding who and what goes where. What you don’t want to do is to pay a lawyer $400 an hour to walk you through this type of interview. Using a worksheet will help you with the numerous decisions you’ll be making. When you’re ready, shop a few lawyers and have your will prepared.

Another option is to use software to completely create your will, since the software will include an interview that will serve the same purpose as the estate planning worksheet. When you’re done, take it to a lawyer for review.

Maybe the lawyer won’t find anything that needs to be changed with your DIY will and they 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 will than to use their boilerplate. (Likely.) That’s OK. The money you spend on the will-making software should still lower the final legal bill. And in the meantime, you’ll most likely have a perfectly valid will.

Got a question you’d like answered?

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About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’m a CPA, and over the years I’ve also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

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