There are many ways in which you can prepare your Last Will and Testament; at the top end you can go to a lawyer’s office, sit with them for an hour, receive top quality legal advice and pay who knows what. We’ve heard reports of anything from $500 to $5,000.
At the other end of the spectrum you can write your own Will, starting with a blank piece of paper, and including instructions for how you would like your possessions to be distributed. If you start this document with a statement saying that it’s your Last Will and Testament, and finish it with your signature, you have a legal Last Will and Testament (in some jurisdictions, if it is written all in your own handwriting, it doesn’t even need to be witnessed to be legal). Total cost – zero.
Two legal Wills, one for $5k, one for zero dollars, and dozens of approaches in between. How do you find the approach that’s best for you?
Let us start with the blank piece of paper. In almost all cases, this is a bad idea simply because there is a chance that you won’t be clear about something. You do need to name somebody to take administer your estate; the Executor, and you have to include a plan in case your main instructions cannot be followed e.g. one of your beneficiaries pre-deceases you or dies in the same accident. If you have anything but the truly simplest case, you have other factors to include like trusts for minors, guardians for minors, and what powers does the Executor really have in taking care of your Will. As soon as you start looking beyond the most basic instructions, the Will can become a far more complex document.
But, you will frequently see advertised “free Will forms” or available at a very low price. What exactly are these forms? They are blank documents with a few placeholders; I (insert name) of (insert address) declare this to be my last Will…” A teenager could create one of these right now, in MS Word, put it online, sell it for a few pennies and call it a Last Will and Testament template. But it would be extremely dangerous to use it. We actually bought a number of these just to look at them and it made us shudder.
It is almost impossible to complete this blank form without making some kind of mistake, but there were probably thousands of these sold. I think this is what the legal community are referring to when they talk about having to sort out estates created with DIY forms which are unclear and have led to family fights.
There are many things that must be included in a Last Will and Testament which will not be included in one of these blank sheets of paper.
So let’s turn our attention to the other end; the $5,000 Last Will and Testament.
There are many very sophisticated estate planning tools including tax oriented trusts or special purpose trusts. Many of these are specific to certain jurisdictions and can be extremely useful if you have a large estate and wish to reduce probate fees or inheritance tax, or if you have a particular family situation for example, a Henson Trust in Canada allows you to provide for a child with special needs. It is possible to see that in some complex scenarios, legal fees can mount up when putting together an estate plan.
However, what if you don’t need sophisticated legal advice and your situation is thought to be straightforward. Supposing you want everything to go to your spouse, and if something happened to the two of you, it should be divided between your children. Supposing you know who your Executor should be, and you know who you would want to serve as guardians for your children. Then there’s a good chance that you don’t need to pay thousands or even hundreds of dollars for legal advice.
There are services developed by estate planning lawyers that are available because the vast majority of people don’t have a legal Will. Online Will creation services are analogous to using tax software to file your taxes. These services are not free, because they have been developed by lawyers and designed by software engineers. There is also usually a support infrastructure to help people complete the services. However, these services are cost effective and they can produce documents that can look exactly the same as a Will prepared by a lawyer.
Our advice is to stay well clear of blank forms or free Last Will and Testament kits. Just like there are some things that you probably shouldn’t buy in a dollar store, a cheap or free Last Will and Testament is not a good idea. But think carefully before paying for legal advice that you may not need. It could be that an online interactive tool is a suitable middle ground for your circumstance.