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Will kits: Cheap, easy and sometimes useful

If you don't want your relatives squabbling over your belongings after you've died, you'd better make a will.

Sound morbid? It is. But if you don't decide who gets what and formalize it in a document, then the state you live in takes over when you die. That bureaucratic mess will cost your estate (and ultimately your heirs) a fortune in both money and aggravation.

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If you don't have much money to spend on estate planning, consider a do-it-yourself-will kit, although most lawyers aren't enthusiastic about them and will warn you that an improperly used kit could leave your estate open to confusion or lawsuit. Certainly these kits aren't a good answer for people with lots of money to leave and complex plans for dividing it up, or for people whose families are inclined to fight over what's left, no matter what.

Done right, the process of estate planning involves choosing a guardian so your children -- in the case of your untimely demise -- will be raised by someone you think will do a good job. Adding a health-care power of attorney and a living will gives a loved one the right to make decisions about your health if you're not able. That will keep you from suffering the same fate that Florida woman Terri Schiavo suffered when her family fought for years over her life and wishes.

The more wealth you have, the less likely it is that these kits will serve you. Should your estate hit $1.5 million this year (not such a huge number if you own real estate or a small business) and be subject to estate taxes, these kits definitely aren't for you. "Your situation will be more complex than any kit will be able to cover," says John Ventura, a lawyer and the author of the "Will Kit."

But these kits are certainly better than nothing and can work just fine if your needs are simple. "If you're leaving everything to your spouse and your kids in equal parts, one of these kits should be adequate," says Dennis Kennedy, a St. Louis-based lawyer, who used to specialize in estate planning, but now is in technology law.

Even if you have a more complex estate, Kennedy thinks that using one of these inexpensive will kits can be valuable. He says that reading the material and working through the exercise of creating a will helps you to understand the process and makes you a better-informed consumer of a lawyer's services.

At the very least, the best of these kits can cut down on what's frequently the most expensive part of using a lawyer: the time he spends asking questions about your personal preferences and possessions. Follow the instructions in the kit for creating a list of your assets, print the result, and take it with you to the lawyer's office. Or Kennedy suggests that you go ahead and create the will or trust and ask the attorney to review it and make any necessary corrections. "That way you can control costs and only pay for an hour or two of a lawyer's time, instead of paying to have him create the whole thing from forms he owns," Kennedy says.

With that advice in mind, we test-drove a few will kits. Here's what we found.

Kiplinger's WillPower, by H&R Block. Available via download or on disk for both PCs and Macs, $29.95.

This is, far and away, the most sophisticated software for creating a will and a variety of trusts, as well as powers of attorney. It first helps you inventory your assets and project their value at an age when mortality is most likely to catch up with you. Then it walks you through appropriate documents that you might want to create, all of which are state-specific. The program includes access to the "Kiplinger Guide to Estate Planning" and "Gilbert's Law Dictionary," plus an assortment of answers to frequently asked questions. If you have technical issues, free support is available during regular business hours.

To help you feel confident that you've taken all the correct steps, the finished documents are accompanied by a checklist that leads you through what you need to do in terms of notarizing signatures and putting copies in a safe place.

-- Posted: July 1, 2005




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