Is There Any Good Software For Writing My Own Will?

We should all have some sort of document that details who gets what after we die, but should we be paying big bucks to some lawyer to write said document when there are websites and applications that can help you do it yourself for significantly less money?

Our wallet-watching cousins at the Consumer Reports Money Adviser newsletter took a look at three DIY options for will-making — LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Quicken WillMaker Plus — and found that while all three are better than not having a will, none of them is likely to meet the needs of anything more than the most basic of estates.

To test the products, a CRMA reporter created profiles of the different individuals and used the programs to craft a will for each profile — nine wills in all — which were then sent to a law school professor specializing in estates and trusts. The legal eagle rated each product on the comprehensiveness of the information and the overall quality of the final wills that were produced. Meanwhile, the CRMA reporter evaluated each piece of software for ease of use.

The final results:

WillMaker Plus was the best of the three. It was 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 consumers would be better off consulting an attorney for more complex cases.

Among the problems found with all three products:
•Outdated information: CRMA tested the products in mid-March, and two referred to federal estate-tax limits that were outdated as of Jan. 1.

•Insufficient customization: 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.)

•Too little flexibility: CRMA found it hard to distribute property the way they 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.

•Too much flexibility: 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.

•Incompleteness: 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.)

•No way to handle some tax issues: 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.

“We found one good use for all three of these products — education,” said Tobie Stanger, Senior Editor, Consumer Reports Money Adviser. “Going through the interviews forces you 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. This information is easier to digest in interview form than reading is as straight estate law.”

Since I have no dependents and plan on having all my belonging incinerated on my funeral pyre, I have yet to get around to the will-writing process. Do any of you have experience with the programs CRMA tested, or other products that provide a similar service?

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