It’s that spooky haunted time of year — my annual post about estate planning! Last year I shared a brief guide to creating a will. Today I’m going to look at a recent New York Times article by Christine Larson that provides an overview of will preparation software.

Larson writes, “Recently, the increasing sophistication of software and services for estate planning, combined with growing consumer comfort with online financial management, has led to a boom in homegrown estate planning.” Here’s a list of the products and services she mentions (along with the canned spiel from the corresponding web site or Amazon page):

  • LegalZoom: “Save time and money on common legal matters! Created by top attorneys, LegalZoom helps you create reliable legal documents from your home or office. Simply answer a few questions online and your documents will be prepared within 48 hours. We even review your answers and guarantee your satisfaction.”
  • Suze Orman’s Will & Trust Kit: “This is an easy-to-use and fast way for you and other members of your household to create your own will, living revocable trust, and all the other must-have documents you need to protect you and your family. It’s as easy as 1-2-3—simply personalize, print, and protect.”
  • Quicken WillMaker Plus: “Help protect your family and your assets, and save on legal fees! Quicken WillMaker Plus 2008 provides the legal forms you need. So comprehensive, the software assembles your forms from among 40,000 document possibilities—but so easy to use, you’ll have them finished in minutes.”
  • Living Trusts on the Web: “We only do one thing, Living Trusts, and we do it better than anyone else! Remember, with our program you are getting all of the documents an attorney would prepare for you, with all of the detail an attorney would provide, without paying an attorney fee.”

Based on my research, these sorts of software and services are excellent choices for people with uncomplicated needs. In her article, Larson warns that estate planning software isn’t for everyone:

Many experts say that do-it-yourself estate planning is best suited for people with estates worth less than $2 million, the amount at which federal estate tax kicks in, and for people who are in first marriages with simple family situations. “They work fine if you’re very, very vanilla,” said Tony Turner, an Atlanta lawyer who specializes in estate planning.

The trouble is that many situations that look vanilla turn out to be Rocky Road. In one family with whom Mr. Turner worked, a stepmother used software to leave everything to her children, he said. Unfortunately, the law said she didn’t have any children: she had never adopted her stepchildren. As a result, it cost them $100,000 in legal fees to claim their inheritance.

In another case Mr. Turner worked on, a grandfather used software to name his grandchildren — not children — as heirs. But skipping a generation permitted the Internal Revenue Service to tax the money twice, so the grandchildren received just 20 percent of the $100 million estate.

Last week, Wendy at Lifehacker documented her experience creating a will using Quicken WillMaker Plus. She was impressed:

Having never made a will before, I was prepared for hours and hours of mind-numbingly boring paperwork. However, with Willmaker, I put together a simple will that took care of all my needs in under 30 minutes.

She’s careful to note, however, that like all of the options listed above, WillMaker is aimed at “those of us who have uncomplicated estates — everyone else should contact an attorney”.

Despite the fact that we have no children, Kris and I are actually going to forego the do-it-yourself route. One of my close friends is a lawyer, and we’ll work with him to get our affairs in order. This will cost us several hundred dollars, but for me the peace of mind is worth it.

Also see 12 easy steps to preparing your estate plan from MSN Money.

[The New York Times: A need for a will? Often, there's an online way]

This article is about Basics, Money Hacks, Planning, Tools