QThank you for the Feb. 18th column on estate planning. Could you provide some starting points for the person willing to take the next steps?
Should I avoid lawyers completely and use a service such as www.nolo.com?
AA will is the foundation for all family financial planning. Now, making a will isn't on anyone's top 10 lists of fun things to do. OK, make that top 20. According to an AARP survey, two out of five Americans over the age of 45 don't have a will. Big mistake -- if you're one of those people without a will, then get one started after finishing this article.
Most people I know who have a will did it when their children were born. Like life insurance, a will was part of constructing a safety net for their young children, especially choosing guardians to raise their children if tragedy struck. But by now the kids are out of the house and building their own families. The will is gathering dust. Now that you're older it's vital to revisit it. If you're married, you should each have your own will drawn up (even if they end up remarkably similar).
There are a number of good "do-it-yourself" will writing products on the market. They're legitimate. The price for a do-it-youself will seems to range from free to about $120. Some of the products allow you the option of speaking with an attorney or having an attorney review the document for a reasonable fee. Once, in a pinch, I used an online will product myself. I chose one of the will forms created by Nolo, the longtime publisher of consumer-oriented self-help legal guides you mentioned. I had a good experience. The directions were comprehensive and easy to follow. It accomplished what I needed it to do at the time. I believe it and other well-known do-it-yourself wills -- like legacywriter, legalzoom and buildawill -- are best for relatively simple estates.
That said, I'm a fan of hiring a lawyer to draft a will for you. Since a will is so critical to an estate plan, it is worth the money a lawyer will charge. You want to make sure you get it right, that you address all contingencies, and that you get any questions you may have answered by a professional. The lawyer will also talk with you about setting up other directives -- such as power of attorney -- that are key to aging gracefully financially.
You'll want to appoint an executor for your estate in your will. It's often a family member. You'll want to keep a couple of things in mind when picking your executor. Pick a responsible person since they'll be settling up debts, paying taxes and otherwise following the instructions in your will. I would also make a provision to pay your executor. It's hard work. They deserve to be paid for their time.
A will is designed to transfer your assets and your values on to the next generation. It's part of your legacy.
Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." Send your questions to email@example.com.