What is the most reliable and affordable way to create a will?
August 18, 2011 8:02 AM   Subscribe

What is the best way to go about creating a legal/binding will in the most affordable manner possible? I am not sure if I should go to a brick and mortar lawyer and pay the going rate, or use an on-line service. Are the on-line sites a safe and reliable option? Are there state specific rules/laws that I need to worry about?
posted by Seymour Zamboni to Work & Money (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are there state specific rules/laws that I need to worry about?


This is one of those times where it's worth paying for competent legal advice to make sure you wind up with a valid will that does what you want it to do.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:12 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

It really depends on the size and complexity of your estate. The most reliable way is to engage an estate planning attorney. However, that will not be the most affordable. If your estate is below the cutoff where estate taxes are an issue then I personally don't think you need an attorney. Willmaker software or an online service will probably be just fine if your will is basically just directing that everything be left to your spouse, or mother. If you have a lot of assets or need complicated trusts set up, then absolutely engage a local estate planning attorney.

You can write the will on a freaking napkin and it can be valid. I'm not recommending that approach, but there is nothing magical about a will that requires an attorney.

IANAL, but once upon a time I did sell estate planning services.
posted by COD at 8:27 AM on August 18, 2011

What is the best way to go about creating a legal/binding will in the most affordable manner possible?

The absolute most affordable manner is to do it yourself. You don't want to do that unless your time is worth very little, and you don't have any assets that you really care about, because in all likelihood -- no offense -- you are going to make a mistake. That mistake is going to cost your heirs and/or beneficiaries money to unravel, and is going to introduce the kind of uncertainty that having a will is supposed to prevent.

I am not sure if I should go to a brick and mortar lawyer and pay the going rate, or use an on-line service. Are the on-line sites a safe and reliable option?

I haven't seen the product of on-line sites for wills, but my experience with the on-line legal services providers is that you get what you pay for. I have a client who formed his LLC through a well-known online legal service, and the filings were filled with basic errors (like getting his address wrong) which took me time -- and cost him money -- to fix when they needed fixing.

You can probably get a simple will done for (depending on rates in your region and your assets) $700 - $1,200. An online will is going to cost, say, $200. Is that extra $500-$1,000 worth it? Well, what are your assets? What's important to you?

Are there state specific rules/laws that I need to worry about?


posted by gauche at 8:28 AM on August 18, 2011

I am an attorney but I am not your attorney. This is not legal advice.

You should consult a competent attorney in your jurisdiction. The attorney should be willing to begin with a brief free consultation, and he or she should also outline the costs of various instruments (e.g. a will, a testamentary trust, power of attorney, medical directives). He or she will also discuss other ways to arrange for your property to pass outside of probate (e.g. making accounts payable or transferable on death). An online service may not even ask about may of those things.

An attorney will also make sure that your will is validly executed, which an online service can't really do. He or she may also be willing to maintain a copy for you, which is another brick-and-mortar service.

Bear in mind: you asked for "the most affordable manner possible," but how much accuracy, completeness, and reliability are you willing to sacrifice for affordability? I think it is worth at least shopping around.

You can write the will on a freaking napkin and it can be valid.

Holographic (i.e. self-written) wills are not valid in all states or circumstances. Formal execution of a will is an important requirement in many jurisdictions.
posted by jedicus at 8:32 AM on August 18, 2011

Here's the thing. You can go through those online things and think you've got it all set-up just right because hey, you answered all the questions in the online form so YAY! Will is DONE! And everyone will go along their merry way until you die, then your heirs get to find this will that doesn't meet legal standards quite right and has stuff that is just plain wrong or unclear and now THEY are spending a crap ton of time getting it all straightened out, but you'll never know.

Please, for the love of God, do it through an attorney. if you estate isn't super complicated, it isn't that expensive to have an actual attorney do it for you.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:22 AM on August 18, 2011

Seconding Nolo Press and their branded Willmaker product. It will tell you all the state-specific things you need to know. I've made several wills with it over the years, over the versions, and it's well worth the $30ish bucks for the digital download.

Disclaimer: don't buy it if you live in Louisiana. Law there isn't based on English common law but French something or another.
posted by introp at 9:23 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

magnetsphere has it right. This isn't about you, it's about your heirs. If you care about them, get it done right and talk to a lawyer. A poorly drawn-up will is most likely going to cost legal fees that will come out of your estate anyway, so you might as well just spend the money now and save your heirs a lot of potential trouble.

My husband was on the receiving end of a do-it-yourself will, and it was a nightmare. We followed the letter of the law when executing the will, and it ended up pretty good for us, but we still have questions that can never be answered as to whether what was done was what his father intended or not. Plus it was a huge pain in the ass that took several years to play out. Seriously, don't do this to your heirs.

Also, whatever you end up doing, once you have the will made, be sure you update it if you have major changes in life circumstances (i.e. marriage, divorce, kids, etc.).

(I feel like I always end up preaching this same sermon when this question comes up, but I gotta tell you, dealing with that will from my father-in-law was a real eye-opener. You don't know how awful it can be until it happens to you; bad enough to be dealing with the death of a parent, but even worse to also have to go through all sorts of shenanigans because the will wasn't properly prepared or was overly vague or was never updated after a second marriage. Give your heirs the gift of space to grieve without having to jump through all sorts of unnecessary legal hurdles. /soapbox)
posted by ashirys at 9:49 AM on August 18, 2011

I am not yet an attorney and this is not legal advice, nor can you rely on it as such.

The MAIN obstacle to doing this on the cheap -- there are others, but the one that is most counterintuitive and that seems most likely to screw you over -- is the execution ritual jedicus brought up. Simply making your desires clear is not enough. Most states require that multiple disinterested people (people who aren't getting anything in the will) sign your will to attest to the fact that they saw you sign it. The problem is that the requirements for this ritual will be at least slightly different in every US state -- in state X the witness must sign immediately after you do, without even ten minutes' delay; in state Y they have to sign while you look at them; in state Z they have to sign while the other witness looks at them; in state W you need thirty-eight of them instead of two of them; etc. etc. etc.

The best advice, as given above by others, is DEFINITELY to talk to a lawyer in your jurisdiction -- not only because she can tell you how to do this right, but because it can probably be taken out of her hide if it winds up done wrong -- so by hiring a lawyer you're basically buying an insurance policy too (in many states). If for whatever reason you are absolutely unable to do so, though, at least make sure you've researched the execution requirements in your state and adhered to them scrupulously.

Know also that even once the will has been properly executed, it's unlikely that your state will let you alter it (cross things out, etc.) without repeating the whole execution ritual.
posted by foursentences at 10:41 AM on August 18, 2011

I'm not recommending that approach, but there is nothing magical about a will that requires an attorney.

In many US states there is such a significant amount of arcane legal vocabulary and mumbo-jumbo necessary to the execution of a valid will that you might as well call it "magical".
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:24 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've used Nolo.com twice to make wills and it was easy and slick and cost maybe $60. I understand that it is automatically tailored to your state of residence. I have to do it again in the next few weeks and will use Nolo again.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 11:29 AM on August 18, 2011

Also a lawyer, not your lawyer. If you have a relatively simple estate, check with small-firm and solo general practice lawyers as well as estate planning specialists. It's not uncommon to find attorneys who do simple wills or simple end-of-life packages for a flat fee (I did, and I did them cheap too). If it's pretty straightforward, it doesn't require a lot of complex drafting on my part, and while my flat-package fee was still a discount on my regular hourly rate, an inexpensive, competently-executed will for (say) new parents tends to get you repeat business with real estate closings, more complicated wills, relatives, etc.

Anyway, it may not be as expensive as you fear if your needs are pretty simple. And if they're not simple, you definitely need a lawyer. :)

Yes, there are definitely state-specific requirements. I have not, personally, seen an online or pre-packaged will package that technically meets my state's requirements, but I haven't gone around looking for/at them either; I've mostly just looked at pre-packaged sets other people have showed me.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:48 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you get a lawyer, for God's sake, vet the lawyer!!

Knew one who didn't the difference between per capita and per stirpes

Know another one, estate specialist, whose handiwork could theoretically have put power of attorney over the aged grandmother in the hands of a ten year old grandchild.

Lot of bad lawyers out there. Get a bunch of recommendations.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:15 PM on August 18, 2011

put power of attorney

Sorry, brains out to lunch that day. Meant to say, an entire estate without guaranteed supervision.

Main point holds
posted by IndigoJones at 8:50 AM on August 20, 2011

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