A Brief Overview of Estate Planning Software

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.

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

We constructed our will using legal zoom. Since we do not have children yet it was quick , easy, and inexpensive. This is a great service for many legal matters

SoldierGrrrl
SoldierGrrrl
12 years ago

We’ll probably redo our wills once we build the house. Right now, if one of us dies, everything reverts to the other. Um. I’m not entirely sure what would happen if we died in a common disaster though.

Should talk to JAG about that!

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

Post-kids, we did the online will twice, but never got to the point of getting witnesses signatures, etc. Bad us, and a waste of a few $100s. A few weeks ago, we were consulting with a lawyer about something else, and at the end, DH suggested we get our will done. 10 minutes later, we left. We got drafts in the mail, and all we have to do now is set up an appointment to get the things signed and put them somewhere safe. Better use of a few $100s. The wills are very uncomplicated, but it clearly says who… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

My wife and I have a very simple set up, so we may consider one of these on-line options (which we will thoroughly research before buying). Actually, making our will has been on our radar for a couple weeks now. Nice article. 🙂

palm
palm
12 years ago

We did the software version of wills before we had kids, and then used a lawyer to revise them after our baby was born. Now that we’ve been to the lawyer I realize that the online wills were inadequate, even for our very simple situation (first marriage, almost no money, no kids). Fortunately we didn’t die with those wills in force, but I have no confidence in the computer programs anymore.

allen
allen
12 years ago

Wait… your FRIEND is still going to charge you a couple of hundred dollars? Yeesh…

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Allen, I have no problem paying friends for what their services are worth. True, I’m a proponent of bartering services, but sometimes it’s good to support a friend’s business…

allen
allen
12 years ago

JD: I’m not criticizing you paying, I guess I could never bring myself to charge my friends that kind of money, not for something that would only cost me a few hours. Charging cost, sure. 😉

To each their own!

Jay S
Jay S
12 years ago

Having an attorney do a will is likely less expensive in the long run. Just imagine having to hire an attorney to fight through changes later on. Allen, Attorney billing rates range from 150 (cheap) to 250 per hour for estate planning. Lets say it takes 2 hours to do the will (including the initial consultation)a few hundred (200-300) is a discount. Some attorneys will do basic wills for 100 or so. They can do it so inexpensively because they are very efficient (using document assembly programs). Plus what some people think is simple can actually be complicated. A young… Read more »

Dylan
Dylan
12 years ago

Most estate planning attorneys will offer an initial meeting at no cost. They will not actually *do* anything for free, but they’ll talk to you about what they can do for you.

In my experience, usually the stuff that you don’t even know that you don’t know is what gets you in the end. That, along with having someone with errors and omissions insurance to hold accountable if there is a costly mistake made, makes lawyers worth a look.

Siena
Siena
12 years ago

For people who are very vanilla, because it’s so cheap, only 10 or 12 dollars (Orman one) to do so online–maybe before getting your friend to do it, it might be worth the investment to check it out–I think you have to go on aware you might lose the cost of the program but at least you know what to expect. One note, I chose the Orman one because she is based in California and the attorney she used for the software is based in the bay area. Well, my parents live in the bay area and I read the… Read more »

Danny Tsang
Danny Tsang
12 years ago

Goodness, my parents were just looking to call an attorney literally within the next few days about setting up a living trust. I’ve used legalzoom for business entities in the past but I was not aware that they did living trusts. I just spent a good hour reading up on living trusts on the web and I’m deciding which route we should take. This post is going to save us thousands. I would have never thought of doing it online. Thanks JD!

J
J
12 years ago

I’m actually an estate and trust attorney and I wrote a post about this article on my blog, as well. A lot of what the people have said in the comments is true. Generally, if I have to probate a Will that was prepared online, it often costs more and has more issues to resolve than one that an attorney prepares. This greatly increases the legal fees to the heirs who have to pay for the probate. There are often so many issues that clients do not think about and these forms just don’t cover. If it was easy, I… Read more »

Jordan
Jordan
12 years ago

@allen I am kind of like you. I do computer repair work, so my family does call. I usually don’t charge family (ok ok I make my mom cook for me 😉 but never take money) But the fact is if you are spending time doing the work for someone else, it means its taking time from your other clients that you would be charging. So unless you are a very close friend, or its some thing I can do in under 15 minutes I will charge them, although it would be a significantly discounted rate and it will be… Read more »

Lee Phillips
Lee Phillips
8 years ago

Remember: it is always cheaper to use a good attorney than it is to use a cheap attorney that’s bad. This is your family – your KIDS – you’re talking about. Let them avoid probate. Set up your will and trust right. Get a good attorney and have it done right. Or your kids will pay for your mistake.

CA
CA
8 years ago

Funny how people willingly pay tens of thousands of dollars to a real estate agent who doesn’t even have a high school diploma to look up some houses on the MLS, but they scoff at paying an attorney a couple of thousand dollars (or less) to prepare their estate plan. Without a proper plan it could cause the disinheritance of their children or grandchildren, thousands of dollars in expenses, taxes, and fees, and years in probate court. Why do you think lawyers have threes years of law school, pass the bar, and have specialized estate planning training? If you even… Read more »

Steve
Steve
7 years ago

Okay all…I need some help. I am looking for a software that will enable me to store electronic versions of everything associated with estate planning including scanned copies with signature. Basically something I would have that would incorporate insurance policy information, copy of wills, information about policy information from work, yada yada yada yada. Can anyone help?

CA Lawyer
CA Lawyer
4 years ago

Yeah, do it yourself. We lawyers LOVE that. Keeps us busy for years and years after you go, straightening out the mess.

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