QUESTION: I would like to make my last will and testament and would like to know if I can do it myself, or do I need to hire a lawyer?
ANSWER: Almost everyone needs a will, but only about one-third of Americans have prepared one. Having a last will and testament is important because it ensures your money and property will be distributed to the people you want to receive it after your death.
If you die without a will (aka dying “intestate”), your estate will be settled in accordance with state law. Details vary by state, but assets typically are distributed using a hierarchy of survivors, i.e., 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 joint holder, 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.
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Not necessarily. Creating a will with a do-it-yourself software program might be acceptable in some cases, particularly if you have a simple, straightforward estate and an uncomplicated family situation. Otherwise, it’s best to seek professional advice. An experienced lawyer can make sure you cover all your bases, which can help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you’re gone.
If you need help finding someone, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA.org), the National Association of Estate Planners & Councils (NAEPC.org) and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC.org) websites are good resources that have online directories to help you search.