Should You Write Your Own Will?

The Traps and Pitfalls of Do-It-Yourself Wills

Writing your own last will and testament might seem like a good idea. How difficult could it be? You're just saying where you want your property to go when you die. But that's only one important thing your will should address.

Do you have minor children? They can't own property so who will take care of their inheritances for them? Who will care for them if you can no longer do so? 

The laws governing how to make a valid will can vary from state to state. This—and any number of special circumstances—can make writing your own will a real challenge even with the help of computer software and online programs

Estate Planning Isn't One Size Fits All

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Will forms generated by estate planning computer software are typically designed to cover only the most basic estate planning needs. These forms are kept as simple as possible in order to comply with the laws of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. If your situation is anything other than basic, your loved ones could be left scrambling after your death, trying to deal with issues the software didn't address. 

Just as everyone's fingerprints are different, so are everyone's estate planning needs. What will work for you and your family will most likely be different from what will work for your sister or your next door neighbor. The bottom line: A generic last will and testament won't do you or your loved ones any good.

Books, Software, and Online Programs Carry Disclaimers

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Pretty much every book or software program about estate planning comes with some sort of disclaimer, something like, "The information contained in this book/program is not legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice. For legal advice consult with an attorney."

So, there you have it. Even books and programs about estate planning recommend that you seek the expertise of an experienced estate planning attorney.

So Many Laws

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Unlike the federal estate tax laws that apply to all U.S. citizens, state laws are all over the place when it comes to probateestate taxes, gift taxes, and inheritance taxes, not to mention the required legal formalities necessary to write and sign a valid will

So many state-specific laws can affect an estate plan, including the definition of descendants, anti-lapse statutes, community property, homestead rights, common law marriages, putative spouses, and disinherited spouses. Generic software simply cannot cover all of these state law issues.

Some software providers do offer state-specific programs, but laws are always changing, being added, or repealed. At the very least, you'll want an attorney to review that state-specific masterpiece the software produced for you. 

Buyer Beware—You Get What You Pay For

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Would you perform your own surgery, repair your own car, or color your own hair? Although doing things yourself can save time and money in the short term, the long-term result might not be what you need or expect. 

Generic might work for groceries, but not for estate planning.

What Is the Bottom Line on Do-It-Yourself Wills?

Just as seeing a dentist to stop the pain in your tooth makes sense, seeing a qualified estate planning attorney who is familiar with the probate, trust, and estate tax laws of your state can be critical. Don't forget about real estate you might own outside of your home state—chances are the laws there are different from the laws in your own state. The time and money you'll spend on the services of a qualified estate planning attorney will be well worth it in the long run.