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Byline: Zimri Smith Bloomberg Business News

For many of the people who have just resolved to get their financial houses in order this year, one place to start is in writing a will.

While do-it-yourself estate planning kits, books and software are widely available, many experts say they aren't a good choice for everyone.

``The do-it-yourself kits carry with them some substantial peril,'' said Vincent Teahan, a lawyer in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. ``And there's no one to sue or complain about but yourself if you use one and screw up,'' he said.

Yet there are enough reasons for writing a will in the first place that using a fill-in-the-blanks form is better than having no will at all, said Mark J. Welch, an estate-planning attorney in Pleasanton, Calif.

The main reason to make out a will is to ensure your wishes will be followed in disposing of your property after you die. (If a person has a negative net worth at death, creditors may be able to go after any jointly held property. For example, creditors can pursue a surviving spouse for payment if the couple owned a house or joint bank accounts. Creditors can't go after the deceased person's children or parents.)

If you die intestate - legalese for ``without a will'' - your estate will be split up by the laws of your state. In most states, that means the court will give half your estate to your spouse and half to your children. Therefore, people must write a will if they want anything other than that to happen to their estate.

If you're a single parent, your children will get 100 percent of your estate. If you're single and childless, your estate will go to your parents or, if they aren't living, then to any siblings.

People shouldn't be dissuaded from making out a will even if they're happy with the way their state typically distributes estates in cases of intestacy, Teahan said.

Wills can make it easier for an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets and can establish guardianship of any minor children.

Simple do-it-yourself wills work well for many people whose lives haven't been complicated by remarriages and stepchildren, Welch said.

The state of California offers a statutory will that's a ``simple four-page will with not-so-simple instructions,'' Welch said. The form works well for many of the people who use it, as long as they take care to follow the instructions, he said.

``The problem comes if you're remarried and have stepchildren,'' he said. ``Perhaps you want to do something differently for your stepchildren, or perhaps you have younger children and adult children and you want to provide for them differently.''

Then it's definitely time to see a lawyer, Welch said. ``Form documents work well for people who live form lives, but fewer and fewer of us live form lives nowadays.''

Sample forms are available for purchase in collections of legal documents at stationery stores and bookstores, in books on estate planning, and software that is available in stores and over the Internet.

One of the most common pitfalls of using a form is people failing to take the steps necessary to make it a legal document. Most states require wills to carry the signatures of two witnesses in addition to the signature of the person writing the will.

``I learned of a case recently in which a person had died with an instrument drawn from a will kit, where the will was invalid because of only one witness,'' said Teahan, the Poughkeepsie attorney. ``The will was an absolute failure, and he died intestate, leaving a substantial, complicated mess.''

Prospective will writers also should consider that some of their assets won't be affected by a will, such as jointly held property, life insurance or retirement plans that name a beneficiary, Welch said. ``A will is not a complete estate plan.''

Computer software also can get a will writer in trouble if he or she modifies language in the will. ``People have no idea of the effects'' of changing legal language, he said.

Some lawyers said the process of filling out a form will can be useful because it gets people to think about what they want to accomplish in a will, especially when it comes to deciding on guardians for their children.

``We have a lot of people come in and have prepared one themselves, then find out they don't understand what they've just done,'' said Scott Borison, a lawyer in Frederick, Md.

Making decisions on guardianship can be a tough issue for couples to address, Borison said. ``If they've used one of these kits or books, at least they've resolved that issue, and they're ready to do the will.''

The following is a list of some do-it-yourself will books and kits, and pages on the World Wide Web that provide additional information about wills.

``The Complete Will Kit'' by Jens C. Appel and F. Bruce Gentry.

``How to Plan Your `Total' Estate With a Will & Living Will Without the Lawyer's Fees'' by Benji O. Anosike.

``The Complete Book of Wills & Estates'' by Alexander A. Bove Jr.

``The Quick & Legal Will Book'' by Denis Clifford.

``The Will Kit'' by John Ventura.

Frequently Asked Questions about wills (

A ``crash course'' in wills and trusts (

List of estate-planning attorneys on the Web (

Wills of famous dead people, from Jerry Garcia to Benjamin Franklin (



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Article Details
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Title Annotation:BUSINESS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 3, 1997

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