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PERSONAL FINANCE

Do You Need a Lawyer to Make Your Will?

Most people can make a will without a lawyer's help. Here's why.
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Even if you've decided to make your own will, you may feel a little uneasy about the process. After all, a will is an important legal document--shouldn't you seek a lawyer's help? That depends on your situation. If you're like most people, you won't need a lawyer; preparing your document will be a fairly easy task. You may have a home, some investments, and some personal items to pass on to your loved ones. You may also own a small business or some additional real estate. And if you have young children, you'll probably want to name a guardian to take care of them, as well as someone to manage any property they inherit. If you have good self-help materials, it's not difficult to make a will that takes care of these basic concerns.

You may be interested to know that when a lawyer drafts a will, he or she usually starts with a standard form that contains the same types of clauses contained in most do-it-yourself wills. Most attorneys put their standard will form into a computer and have a secretary type in the client's name, the names of the people the client wants his or her property to go to, and other basic information--exactly the same thing you can do for yourself when you make your own will.

Making a will rarely involves complicated legal rules. In most states, if you're married, your spouse has the right to claim a certain amount of your property after your death. If you leave your spouse at least half of your property, this won't be an issue. And you need to sign and acknowledge your will in front of witnesses. But beyond these basic requirements, you may parcel out your property however you like, and you don't have to use fancy language to do it. In short, if you know what you own, whom you care about, and you take a little time to use your self-help resources, it's hard to make a mistake.

However, you shouldn't approach the task of will drafting with a rule against consulting a lawyer. In some situations a lawyer's services are warranted. But even if you have some questions for a lawyer, you don't necessarily have to turn over the whole project; you can simply ask your questions and then finish making your own will.

You may want to consult a lawyer if:

 

  • You have questions about your will or other options for leaving your property.
  • You expect to leave a very large amount of assets (say, over $1 million) and they will be subject to estate tax unless you engage in tax planning.
  • Rather than simply choosing people to inherit your property, you want to make more complex plans for what happens to it--for example, leaving your house in trust to your spouse until he or she dies and then having it pass to your children. Older people who have remarried often want to set up this type of trust.
  • You are a small business owner and have questions as to the rights of surviving owners or your ownership share.
  • You must make arrangements for long-term care of a beneficiary--for example, setting up a trust for an incapacitated or disadvantaged child.
  • You fear someone will contest your will on grounds of fraud, or claim that you were unduly influenced or weren't of sound mind when you signed it.
  • You wish to disinherit, or substantially disinherit, your spouse. It's usually not possible to do this if your spouse objects, but a lawyer can explain your spouse's rights.

Also, some people simply feel more comfortable having a lawyer review their will, even though their situation has no apparent legal complications.

 

If you decide to see a lawyer, your next task will be to find one who is knowledgeable about wills, charges a reasonable fee and will respect your efforts to make your own will. This may not be easy, but it shouldn't be impossible.




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