Should You Write Your Own Will or Hire a Lawyer?

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If you don’t yet have a last will and testament, you might be wondering if you really need to hire a lawyer, or if you can just create one yourself, given the number of tools—from books to computer software programs to online will templates—available to help you do so. But like many things in life, just because you can do something yourself doesn’t mean you should. Not surprisingly, none of the estate-planning attorneys we consulted recommend writing a will yourself.

“I have been practicing law in the trusts and estates field for over 35 years, and I can candidly say that every time I’ve seen a person prepare his or her own will, the result has not been good,” says Nancy S. Bender-Kelner, an attorney at Bender-Kelner Wills, Trusts & Estates, P.A. in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

The downsides to writing your own will

Creating your own will may seem like an easy way to save money—and on the front end, that’s true. But unless your estate is extremely simple, you may still need legal help after writing a will with a DIY program (something both the New York Times and Consumer Reports have found.)

Furthermore, correcting any mistakes made in DIY wills, such as misusing legal terms, leaving out key information such as naming an executor, or leaving out administrative provisions, such as how the estate’s expenses and taxes will be paid, can be expensive. “The costs involved in ‘fixing’ the problems caused by the amateur will-writer almost always far surpass what the cost would have been had the individual sought legal advice in the first place,” Bender-Kelner says.

That’s assuming you can find an attorney willing to review your DIY will—something that can take as much time as creating a will in the first place, according to Eric J. Lindstrom, an attorney in Edina, Minnesota, who focuses his practice on estate planning. Plus, “a mistake found after your death may not be able to be fixed, and your assets may not go where you want them to go,” he says. For example, language in the document could unintentionally produce undesirable tax consequences.

If you’re still set on writing your own will, Lindstrom stresses the importance of first educating yourself on the topic—on everything from what exactly a will is and what it accomplishes to who you want to be the executor and where you want your assets to go—as well as the specific tool you’re using.

What a pro provides

An experienced estate-planning attorney will help you identify how (and to whom) you want to leave your assets behind. They can help you identify an executor, and identify a guardian for minor children, if you have any, as well as help create trusts or add language to your will that would ensure your heirs receive assets in accordance with your wishes. Creating a trust for a minor child or for a dependent with special needs, for example, can be complicated.

Furthermore, “a lawyer is tasked with ensuring that once the document is drafted in accordance with your wishes, it’s also compliant with state law,” says Anne Kelley Russell, an attorney at Moore & Van Allen, PLLC, in Charleston, South Carolina, who focuses her practice on estate planning. “If it isn’t, it could be deemed invalid—and then you end up with an intestate estate.”

The cost of making a will

Rates vary, of course, depending on where you live and the complexity of your estate. While DIY tools such as Quicken WillMaker Plus, Rocket Lawyer, and LegalZoom can cost less than $100, having a lawyer draw up your will could cost you anywhere from $500 to $1500 or more. Typically, a lawyer will charge a flat, rather than hourly, fee to write the will.

How to find an estate attorney

It’s important to hire an attorney who focuses on estate planning and who is licensed to practice in the state where you live. “There are so many nuances in state law that you want to use someone who typically drafts wills in your state and who’s licensed, to make sure it’s valid,” says Russell.

For example, while federal estate taxes are the same throughout the U.S., state estate tax laws vary. Some states have state estate tax laws; some do not. These laws or the lack thereof may require different will provisions.

Start by asking friend of family members for a referral; you can also contact your state bar association for a referral, or search for a local attorney at the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel or the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils. You can also browse attorneys in your area using our service finder:

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