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Time to Get a Lawyer?

Some topics are like fire. Stay close and you'll keep warm; get too close and you'll get burned. Wills are like that. Some Fools think you're best served using software or a book to draw up the document that dictates your final parting wishes as you leave the planet. Others think you'd be crazy not to hire a lawyer. Who's right? Let's take a look at both sides.

Cheap and easy: Go with the software
The primary advantage to software is that it's relatively cheap to use, automated, and produces a legally usable document in a matter of minutes. As one Fool from our Living Below Your Means discussion board puts it, the process can be "... simple and straightforward."

That's true. Nolo Press has been publishing legal self-help books and forms since 1971. Intuit's Quicken line now includes WillMaker Plus. Heck, even so-called financial diva Suze Orman has a software kit for generating a will and trust. Prices range from as little as $13.50 to as much as $75.

No wonder these products have a following; $75 is a fraction of what you'd pay a lawyer for the same service. But can the software really compare with years of legal training? Even the Fool who wrote in support of the do-it-yourself approach acknowledged that her situation was relatively straightforward: "Of course, we don't have anything in our estates that require a specialist yet."

Worth the price: Pay for expertise
Indeed, the argument for software breaks down as soon as the will involves caring for children, or divvying up assets across current and former spouses, or similarly convoluted situations. As one attorney wrote on the LBYM board, "The wills that do the most damage, that screw things up the worst, seem to be the wills where a non-lawyer tried to get 'fancy' by using either a kit or copying language from another will that they have gotten their hands on to."

That, our Foolish attorney writes, is an invitation to disaster, for it "...increases the risk that you just did something you never in a million years intended to do." And that may cost serious money and time in probate court. Probate is the process by which your estate is dissolved legally, according to and by the laws of your county and state. A poorly worded will may be rendered useless by a presiding judge. When that occurs, local bureaucrats may supersede the intended executor of the will in making decisions. And they'll have no interest in anything other than collecting what's owed.

Not only that, but a will is only one piece of a comprehensive estate plan. For example, there are power of attorney documents that give you the right to appoint a proxy to handle your financial and medical affairs in the event you become incapacitated. Attorneys may have the specialized knowledge required to produce these agreements without flaw. Software may not.

Get something in writing
Finally, while many on the boards argued generally in favor of hiring an attorney because of the potential hassle of a bungled will, one story from a participant in our Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement service is, frankly, chilling:

Today (Tuesday) I learned that my only brother died nine days ago. It took that long to find out because we hadn't communicated for over two decades in part because my lawyer father never wrote a will for either my mother or himself (and they died within six months of each other). It precipitated many stupid battles. I can't say that our estrangement wouldn't have happened anyway, but why would anyone not spend the money?

Good question.

Follow the money
Whether you choose to hire a lawyer or do it yourself, make sure you draw up a will. There's simply no excuse for laziness that allows heirs to square off over your grave. Besides, the full-service route isn't that expensive. My wife and I paid a local attorney with estate law expertise $500 to design our joint will, living wills, and power of attorney documents. That's a pretty reasonable price to pay for our children's security.

Have other money tips? Tell me. I'm writing new articles on personal finance and investing basics every week as part of our new money-management service, Motley Fool GreenLight. It's tailor-made for Fools like you who aim to take control of their financial destiny. Click here to learn more.

Intuit is aMotley Fool Inside Valuerecommendation.

Fool contributorTim Beyershopes that he and you have several more decades to live. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Get a peek at everything he's invested in by checking his Foolprofile. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyis always prepared.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 28, 2014, at 4:37 PM, elizalawrence wrote:

    It really can be hard to decide when you need to get a lawyer. I think that lawyers are the most useful when you are working with more extreme situations. It is imperative that you find a lawyer that you can get along with and can trust.

    Eliza Lawrence | http://www.dcrookslaw.com/services

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Tim Beyers
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Tim Beyers first began writing for the Fool in 2003. Today, he's an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and Motley Fool Supernova. At Fool.com, he covers disruptive ideas in technology and entertainment, though you'll most often find him writing and talking about the business of comics. Find him online at timbeyers.me or send email to tbeyers@fool.com. For more insights, follow Tim on Google+ and Twitter.

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