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Estate Planning Guide
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Do-it-yourself wills online

Generating your last will and testament can now be done by typing a few answers to questions posed on an Internet site.

By following some specific guidelines suggested by estate planning attorneys, you'll end up with a document that should hold up in court and grant your last wishes. But first, you'll need to shop the sites to see which one works best for you.

One of the biggest issues with any do-it-yourself legal document is making sure the wording reflects clearly what you want. When the document goes through the probate process, there should be no doubt as to who will inherit your assets and who will be the executor of your estate.

"Make sure you're using the right form (for your situation) and answering the right questions," says Harry S. Margolis, founder of Elderlaw Answers and an attorney specializing in elder law in Boston.

Online will sites don't work for everyone and every situation. The best candidates for using them are those individuals with the simplest cases.

"A married or unmarried individual with an insignificant level of assets (that is, below the threshold before federal and/or state taxes kick in), who knows where his or her assets will go, knows there will be no conflict among the beneficiaries and who has a clear choice of executor will probably get a rather satisfactory online will," says Jeffrey A. Asher, a partner in Eaton & Van Winkle LLP in New York.

Although a majority of the population can benefit from an online will, there are certain situations that warrant an attorney's expertise. Anyone with complicated affairs or substantial assets should seek the help of an attorney and not attempt to write a will online.

When NOT to write an online will:
  • You or your spouse are citizens of another country.
  • You have significant assets.
  • You are married with minor children.
  • You're in a gay relationship.
  • You're raising grandchildren or stepchildren.
  • You have a disabled, dependent adult child.
  • You've been married more than once.
  • You anticipate your will might be contested.
  • You own a small business.
  • The online form doesn't address your specific circumstances.

New option includes legal advice

People who reside in certain states and want to create a will online now have another option besides the impersonal online forms. Some sites offer the ease of the online will coupled with advice from an attorney on how to fill it out.

"Lawyers are late in coming to this game," says Richard Granat, co-chairman of the eLawyering Task Force of the American Bar Association, a group of lawyers helping other lawyers figure out ways to deliver online legal services, including the writing of wills. "But recently some law firms have emerged with online wills bundled with a lawyer's recommendations. You can e-mail any questions you have to an attorney."

These sites are all state specific because the attorneys who offer the service can only offer legal services to residents of the state(s) where they are a member of the bar.

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According to Granat, the prices for this option are relatively reasonable -- sometimes as little as $30 more than the basic online will -- and if it's available to you, this is your best choice.

"Soon we will have one of these law firms in every state, and they will be marketed under the DirectLaw brand as a network of law firms offering legal forms bundled with legal advice for a fixed price," says Granat. DirectLaw.com of Owings Mills, Md., assists law firms that want to deliver online legal services via an Internet platform.

Advantages of online wills

Cost is a big factor where wills are concerned. Online will sites typically charge in the range of $19.95 to $225. By hiring a lawyer, you might be able to secure a finished document for $500, but usually it will cost more, and the price goes up exponentially depending on how complicated your estate is, Margolis says.

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