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December 19, 2012 10:30 AM   Subscribe

U.S. Lawyerfolk: Family member needs to make a simple will for a simple estate that is unlikely to be contested. Is LegalZoom or QuickenWills OK for something like this?

Relative's estate is a paid-off house, some jewelry and personal items, a paid-off car, some savings, and an IRA. Her sole heirs are two adult children, to whom she wishes to divide her estate equally. Children have a good relationship and are supportive of her plan.

Only potential complication is that the relative's house is in a U.S. territory, not a state. Children live in U.S. and relative is planning to move back to the states shortly, although the house will still be in the picture for some time until it sells.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
IANAL, however, I have engaged a friend that practices estate law for addressing this issue personally. His advice was that there are often caveats depending upon jurisdiction that influence how a will should be drawn up.

This should not be expensive for a lawyer to do, and should be pretty standardized. Addressing this issue and three others, including setting up a trust, with my lawyer was less than $1000. Call a lawyer and get an estimate on cost. I'm risk averse, and it's my opinion that a few hundred out of an estate is small potatoes to ensure everything is correct.
posted by bfranklin at 10:42 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Rather than LegalZoom or QuickenWills, look for a local legal aid office that offers self-help resources on-line. Self-help resources published by legal aid are for use by everyone, not limited to clients who meet the income guidelines for direct services from legal aid agencies. They often include sample documents (like simple wills) and instructions for how to properly file/register those documents in the county, as well as best practices for keeping them up-to-date and accessible. As always, if you use the self-help resources from your local legal aid office, please consider sending them a small donation in exchange.

But hiring an attorney to draft a simple will for a simple estate is not generally an expensive proposition. It's usually a simple flat fee. Call a few professionals and compare it to the cost of the software. It will be more expensive, but it's probably not as much more as you might think. With anything even remotely unusual--like property that's out of the jurisdiction--I would hire a person, rather than use self-help, but I am very risk averse that way.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:43 AM on December 19, 2012

Laws surrounding estates are complex. I would hire an attorney. This is not something that you'd want to outsource to a service like LegalZoom, only to find that, while you are dealing with the grief of your mother's death, that there is some aspect of the will that the courts do not like, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 10:46 AM on December 19, 2012

I used Quicken Willmaker and was impressed with the level of detail it had, but I've also heard of lawyers who had to do a lot of work to clean up problems from self-written wills. (Of course, they didn't talk about the majority of times, when everything went fine.) One intermediate option is to spend the $30 for a program, make a will, and then find a lawyer who will review it. Also, from the Amazon description of WillMaker: "*Estate planning documents not valid in Louisiana or U.S. Territories."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:52 AM on December 19, 2012

IAAL. I don't do estate planning, but the ones I know who do do these sorts of things as a flat fee. Many will also offer "complete packages" that include a will, durable power of attorney, testamentary trust, living will, and so on for something like $1000-$1500. It is definitely worth the outlay.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:01 AM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Speaking solely as an adult child of parents who are in their 70s, one of the most important things you can do is exclude as much as possible from the probate process. This may involve creating beneficiary relationships (for pensions, insurance, etc.) or co-owner status (assets such as houses and vehicles) or even trusts (perhaps a "springing" trust). In other words, make sure that things that are to go to an heir are in effect already theirs without needing to involve the will or the courts. Still, you'll want to do this with the assistance of an attorney, and I think in most cases the expense will be well worth it (a probate dispute will run up attorneys' fees faster than you can say Jamdyce).

I endorse the concept of Nolo and such in principle, but I think quickie online wills are basically for people who have the simplest possible situations and have a very high expectation of comity amongst heirs.

I'll also say from observation alone that one of the worst things you can do is make one of the heirs also the executor. If at all possible use someone disinterested.
posted by dhartung at 12:37 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANYL, TINLA. When I did Estates (not in the States), I had a flat fee for these sorts of packages, for a LOT less than the numbers being mentioned here. The standard line about the advantage of a lawyer is that you get to rely on their professional insurance should something go wrong. If you screw up your do-it-yourself will, there's no recourse.

That said, Estates lawyers are huge fans of do-it-yourself wills, as they were big moneymakers on the back end. Chances are most homemade wills would work just fine, but the business generated litigating those that didn't was substantial. You can pay a little on the front end, or you can risk it, and maybe, maybe not pay a lot more on the back end. (I admit, however, that the large majority of do-it-yourself wills I saw had few problems -- but I have no idea if that's still true, nor if it's true in your case.)

And I have no idea about your own family situation, and this is no statement on you personally, but if I had a nickel for everyone who said that everybody would get along -- well, I wouldn't still be in this terrible business.

Summary -- a lawyer probably isn't as expensive as you think, and a lot safer. I'd look into it if I were you. Which I'm not. TINLA, IANYL.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:30 PM on December 19, 2012

I've used Nolo.com with excellent results.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:09 PM on December 19, 2012

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