A well-written will allows your estate to be distributed legally and efficiently, costing your beneficiaries the least money and heartache. But you don't need an attorney to write a will. A number of software providers promise to help you draft a legal will for far less than you'd pay a lawyer.
Like tax software, these products guide you through an interview to draw out your intentions regarding, say, how you want your property distributed and who you want as executor of your estate.
We tested three electronic offerings: LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Quicken WillMaker Plus. The first two allow you to create a will online; the third is available as either a download or a CD-ROM (see Product details). First we created profiles of individuals from three different New York families. Our reporter then completed the interviews as if she were those individuals, drafting nine wills in all.
We sent the wills and interview records—with product identification hidden—to Gerry W. Beyer, a professor at the Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock who specializes in estates and trusts. Beyer judged each product on how comprehensive the interviews were and how much information was provided, and on the overall quality of the wills. Our reporter evaluated the software for ease of use. See How 3 products handled 3 scenarios. for more details on the scenarios and how the products worked.
All three are better than nothing if you have no will. But unless your needs are very simple—say, you want to leave everything to your spouse with no other provisions—none of them is likely to meet your needs. And we found problems with all three:
We tested the products in mid-March, and two referred to federal estate-tax limits that were outdated as of Jan. 1.
The products rarely referred in detail to state estate law. So they offered no guidance on how states treat wills that, for instance, fail to leave property to children born after a will is signed. (WillMaker Plus doesn't do Louisiana wills because of the state's unique estate laws; Rocket Lawyer provides a Louisiana will but recommends that consumers consult a lawyer.)
We found it hard to distribute property the way we wanted to. WillMaker Plus, for instance, provided arbitrary age and time limits for some provisions. The program wouldn't let a child's trust go beyond age 35 or set up conditions on bequests in a will, such as stipulating that a child receive money only after finishing college.
After you finish the Rocket Lawyer interview, the program allows you to edit your completed will. LegalZoom lets you put anything you like in the special-directives section. Both features could lead you to add clauses that contradict other parts of your will.
None of the packages created a special-needs trust. Only WillMaker Plus gave information on registered domestic partnerships and included a pet trust in its main interview. None of them touched on "digital assets," such as ownership and management of server-stored documents and photos. And none dealt with specifics on compensating executors. (LegalZoom sells a stand-alone pet-protection agreement. Rocket Lawyer says it's adding pet and digital-assets options this summer. And WillMaker Plus 2012 will address digital assets.)
None of the products explained how to structure trusts to reduce estate-tax liability. With the current federal estate-tax floor mirrored in many state laws—$5 million per person, $10 million per couple—most people won't have to worry about federal or state estate taxes. But some states set limits far lower. New York, for instance, levies estate tax on assets of $1 million or more.
WillMaker Plus was the best of the three. Beyer found it to be competent—though far from ideal—for drawing up a simple will. Rocket Lawyer also made a good simple will, provided comprehensive information, and had an interview that handled most needs. But our expert said consumers would be better off consulting an attorney for more complex cases.
We found one good use for these products: education. Going through the interviews forced our reporter to think about issues like, "Who should be the alternative executor?" and "Who gets your estate if your spouse and kids don't survive you?" The information is more digestible in interview form than as straight estate law.
If you want to save time at an attorney's office—and unless you're paying a flat fee, time with a lawyer means money—take a practice run on either Rocket Lawyer or WillMaker Plus. Use the links and pop-ups to get more information. And you can use the prompts to prepare the inventory lists and instructions your beneficiaries and executors will need in your absence. Then call an attorney.
Each product used for this test included guides for executors and guardians; checklists or instructions on notarizing, storing, and updating documents; and worksheets for property inventory.
$25 to $40 as a CD-ROM (Windows only) from various retailers or $38 as a download from www.nolo.com.
Create and store documents on your computer, and print.
Wills and other estateplanning documents for an unlimited number of people, a letter discussing final arrangements, and an information letter for caregivers and survivors.
Includes a comprehensive legal manual and free estate-planning news and information at www.nolo.com.
$69 for the basic product.
Pay after creating documents online at www.legalzoom.com. You’ll be mailed a printed copy, which the company says is checked by its staff for spelling, grammar, and consistency (but not for legal issues). Our printed wills arrived in about nine days.
A will, a statement of interment, and a comprehensive estate-planning brochure. For $10 more you can get the “Legal Advantage Plus” service, which includes faster processing of the will and legal advice for 30 days (available in 35 states; renewable monthly for $14.99). Also available: a living trust ($249 to $269); living will ($39 to $49); power-of-attorney form ($35 to $45); and pet-protection agreement ($39 to $79).
Online education center, FAQs, glossary, and phone assistance.
Free for seven days. After that, $19.95 a month or $119 a year for the Basic Legal Plan.
Pay after creating documents online at www.rocketlawyer.com. Store online; print them yourself.
The Basic Legal Plan lets you create an unlimited number of estate documents plus dozens of other personal legal forms.
Free library of estate-planning articles, an attorney directory, and “Just Answer” (not tested), a pay-per-question e-mail service. Live Chat technical help on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Pacific Standard time. (It was not available the day we called at 7:48 a.m.)
This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.