By Jim Miller
Dear Savvy Senior,
I would like to make my last will and testament and would like to know if I can do it myself, or do I need to hire a lawyer?
- Don’t Have Much
Very good question! Almost everyone needs a will, but only about one-third of Americans have actually prepared one. Having a last will and testament is important because it ensures your money and property will be distributed to the people you want to receive it after your death.
If you die without a will (a.k.a. dying “intestate”), your estate will be settled in accordance with state law. Details vary by state, but assets typically are distributed using a hierarchy of survivors i.e., first to a spouse, then to children, then your siblings, and so on.
You also need to be aware that certain accounts take precedence over a will. If you jointly own a home or a bank account, for example, the house, and the funds in the account, will go to the joint holder, even if your will directs otherwise. Similarly, retirement accounts and life insurance policies are distributed to the beneficiaries you designate, so it is important to keep them up to date, too.
Do you need a lawyer?
Not necessarily. Creating a will with a do-it-yourself software program may be acceptable in some cases, particularly if you have a simple, straightforward estate and an uncomplicated family situation. Otherwise, it’s best to seek professional advice. An experienced lawyer can make sure you cover all your bases, which can help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you’re gone.
If you need help finding someone, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA.org), the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC.org) and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC.org) websites are good resources that have online directories to help you search.
Costs will vary depending on your location and the complexity of your situation, but you can expect to pay somewhere between $200 and $1,000 or more to get your will made. To help you save, shop around and get price quotes from several firms. Before you meet with an attorney, make a detailed list of your assets and accounts to help make your visit more efficient.
If money is tight, check with your state’s bar association (see FindLegalHelp.org) to find low-cost legal help in your area. Or, call the Eldercare Locater at 800-677-1116 for a referral.
If you are interested in a do-it-yourself will, some top options to consider are Nolo’s Quicken WillMaker & Trust (Nolo.com, $99) and Trust & Will (TrustandWill.com, $159). If either is more than you’re willing to pay, you can make your will for free at FreeWill.com or DoYourOwnWill.com.
It’s also recommended that if you do create your own will, have a lawyer review it to make sure it covers all the important bases.
Where should you store it?
Once your will is written, the best place to keep it is either in a fireproof safe or file cabinet at home, in a safe deposit box in your bank, or online at sites like Everplans.com. Make sure your executor knows where it is and has access to it. If a professional prepares your will, keep the original document at your lawyer’s office. Also, be sure to update your will if your family or financial circumstances change, or if you move to another state.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.