November 1, 2018

Though it may seem hard to believe, at age 65, I have never gotten around to making a will, but I'd like to now. My question is: Do I need to hire a lawyer to write my will, or can I draft it myself? I want to get my affairs in order, but I'd hate to pay an attorney fee if I didn't have to.

It's not hard to believe at all. Fewer than half of American adults have a will, mainly because they either haven't thought about it or haven't gotten around to it, or they have put it off because they don't want to think about dying.

Having a will is important because it ensures that your money and property are distributed to the people you want to receive it after your death. If you die without a will, your estate will be settled in accordance with state law. Details vary by state, but assets typically are distributed using a hierarchy of survivors. Assets go first to a spouse, then to children, then your siblings and so on.

You also need to be aware that certain accounts take precedence over a will. If you jointly own a home or a bank account, for example, the house and the funds in the account will go to the surviving owner, even if your will directs otherwise. Similarly, retirement accounts and life insurance policies are distributed to the beneficiaries you designate, so it is important to keep them up to date too.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

There are do-it-yourself software programs which allow users to set up a simple will. This may be acceptable in some cases, particularly if you're single and have a modest bank account.

It is best to seek professional advice, especially if you have significant financial assets or a complex family situation, like a blended family or a child with special needs. An experienced lawyer can make sure you cover all your bases, which can help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you are gone.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA.org) and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC.org) websites are good resources. These websites have directories to help you find someone in your area.

Costs will vary depending on your location and the complexity of your situation, but you can expect to pay somewhere between $200 and $1,500 on the drafting of your will. To help you save, shop around and get price quotes from several different firms. Before you meet with an attorney, make a detailed list of your assets and accounts to help make your visit more efficient.

If money is tight, check with your state's bar association (see www.FindLegalHelp.org) to find low-cost legal help in your area. You may also call the Eldercare Locater at 800-677-1116 for a referral.

If you do create your own will, it is wise to have a lawyer review it to make sure it covers all the important bases.

Where to Store It?

Once your will is written, the best place to keep it is in a fireproof safe, a file cabinet at home or in a safe deposit box in your bank. Make sure your executor knows where it is and has access to it. If a professional prepares your will, keep the original document at your lawyer's office. Also, be sure to update your will if your family or financial circumstances change or if you move to a different state.

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