If you have assets — particularly if you have a spouse and children — you need to have a will. Your will saves your heirs from the hassles of state intestacy laws, and it ensures that everything you leave behind goes to the right people.
Many websites offer do-it-yourself wills, which let you fill in certain information and then generate complete and legally binding wills. You make your will, print the form, get witness signatures, and let people know where to find it. So do you really need an attorney to create a will? The question depends on the complexity of your financial situation. Let’s examine whether you can get by with a DIY will or whether you should consult an estate lawyer.
Who’s Getting Your Stuff?
If you want your assets to go to your spouse or another relative or friend, then a DIY will provides all that you’ll need. However, if you want some assets to go to your minor children and bypass your spouse, or if you’re divorced and don’t want to leave your estate to the mother or father of your children, you might need an attorney to set up a trust. Also, if you’re leaving your assets to a child with special needs, a trust is essential.
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With a trust, you can hold your money or assets until your child reaches a certain age. You can make access to the trust contingent on attending college, or you can hold the funds until your child earns a certain level of income on their own. Setting up a trust isn’t cheap, and the more complicated it is — if you add requirements for college attendance, for example — the more it will cost you. However, if you want to bypass a spouse or ex-spouse, setting up a trust is a good idea.
How Much Do You Have?
Estates over a certain size are subject to estate taxes. For federal taxes, your estate would have to be valued at over $5.43 million before you’d pay an estate tax to the IRS. States have their own individual tax floors, and they often apply to estates worth less than $1 million. In New Jersey, for example, the state takes estate taxes if your estate is worth just $675,000. With a trust, you can bypass some estate taxes. If you have a high-net-worth estate, consider talking to an attorney.
What About Your Kids?
For people with young children, it’s crucial to decide who will have guardianship of the children if something happens to you. Most DIY will kits let you specify what would happen to your kids if you pass away, and they allow you to name a property guardian for your children’s inheritance. If you leave assets to your children without naming a property guardian for those assets, the probate court will choose a property guardian for you.
Also, if you have life insurance, and you want to name a property guardian to manage the funds for you, then you can express your wishes in a DIY will. However, if you want to set up a trust for the money, you should probably talk to an attorney.
When people create wills, they often create other important documents, including power of attorney documents and advance directives, or living wills:
Power of attorney. A financial power of attorney takes charge of your finances if you’re incapacitated and can’t make decisions for yourself. A health care power of attorney makes health care decisions when you can’t make them on your own.
Living will. Your living will explains whether or not you’d like doctors to take measures to prolong your life. Many hospitals have generic forms that you can use, or you can use the forms that come with your DIY will.
Funeral instructions. Along with your will and living will, provide a letter letting your family know exactly what funeral arrangements you’d prefer. Let them know if you’ve prepaid your funeral and where, and spell out what you want for your memorial service.
Create Your Own Will
Unless your finances and relationships are complex, most DIY wills will work fine for your situation. Have the wills signed by witnesses and notarized, if your state requires it, and make sure someone knows where your will is kept.