A good attorney for writing a will?

accounting ledgerKate emails:

Could anyone recommend a good, reasonable lawyer to prepare a simple will?

A will is one of those things most people, especially younger people, are probably like, "Me? I don't need a will."

But you might surprised, even for the non-Warren Buffets of the world -- a will can help can help smooth the way a bit for your loved ones after you die. And while there are online services that now offer to help with preparing a will, an actual attorney might be able to ask you better questions for writing a more helpful will.

So, suggestions for Kate? Bonus points for explaining why you're suggesting that attorney. And extra bonus points for mentioning roughly how it much it cost, so Kate and everyone else has a good idea of what they might expect to pay.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Ask AOA: A good divorce attorney?
+ Ask AOA: Attorneys for small businesses?

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We love our lawyer, Mary Colwell in Coorporate Woods. She charged us a flat, reasonable rate to write our wills.

If you just need a 'simple' will, you probably do not need an attorney. All you need to do is write out very clearly what your wishes are and have the document signed by yourself and two other individuals (in the presence of yourself and each other) and then file it with the county clerk.

That is, if you need one at all. The normal order of claim on an estate is,
-Spouse (if any). If not,
-Children (if any). If not,
-Parents (if any living). If not,
-Siblings (if any). If not,
-Nieces/nephews (if any). If not, things get more complicated from there.


There are reviews of 4 do-it-yourself kits here

I was very happy using Eric for my will. He asked some great, pointed questions that I hadn't even considered. http://schillinger-law.com/

@Alex, close, but no cigar.
I am an estate planning attorney and would advise strongly against DIY. I have seen several DIY Wills, including garbage from legalzoom, submitted for probate and they did not hold up. When there are children or second spouses involved estates can get extremely messy if you do not have a proper estate plan, which legalzoom and Suze Orman endorsed products are not able to give legal advice nor ask the appropriate questions to develop an appropriate estate plan. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all when it comes to estate planning; even for a simple estate. And estate planning, even simple estate planning, does not start and stop with a Will.
A simple estate plan, without any complicated supplemental needs trust or tax planning, costs a lot less than most people think. If Kate is interested, Greg or Mary could pass along my e-mail I'd be happy to schedule a free consult to discuss your estate planning needs.

With the full disclosure that I am an attorney who has prepared simple wills in the past (but no longer), please, *please* do not use LegalZoom or, sweet jesus, the We the People folks if they're still kicking on Wolf Road, or any of those other DIY garbage wills. The paper products can neither answer all the questions you might have, nor can they ask YOU the right questions about your plans.

Colleen nailed all the other salient points. My only other advice is to check to see if your (or your spouse's) employer has a legal services plan. Oftentimes with these plans the client will not pay a penny (the idea being that they will charge you for probate when you kick off, or for related services in estate planning). Just make sure you get a few references, interview the attorneys, and make sure they advertise for estate planning.

With respect to the professional lawyers' input, and WITHOUT advocating the garbage templates/services out there, my point of statutory inheritance stands. If you're alright with that order of succession, and any assets being divided equally among the legal claimants, you don't necessarily need any will at all.

Example: if you are married and die while your spouse lives, they are the sole beneficiary of any assets not otherwise covered (such as life insurance policies, retirement benefits, etc) and not counting taxes or other estate settlement expenses. If you're OK with that, you don't need a will.

@Alex, you are close but not 100% correct on intestate succession of assest.

Though the lawyers posting here obviously deal with this on a regular basis, here's the relevant statute I was referring to. There are additional contingency situations after 5) but they were omitted here for space and simplicity's sake.


Descent and Distribution of a Decedent's Estate

The property of a decedent not disposed of by will shall be distributed as provided in this section. In computing said distribution, debts, administration expenses and reasonable funeral expenses shall be deducted but all estate taxes shall be disregarded, except that nothing contained herein relieves a distributee from contributing to all such taxes the amounts apportioned against him or her under 2-1.8. Distribution shall then be as follows:

(a) If a decedent is survived by:

(1) A spouse and issue, fifty thousand dollars and one-half of the residue to the spouse, and the balance thereof to the issue by representation.

(2) A spouse and no issue, the whole to the spouse.

(3) Issue and no spouse, the whole to the issue, by representation.

(4) One or both parents, and no spouse and no issue, the whole to the surviving parent or parents.

(5) Issue of parents, and no spouse, issue or parent, the whole to the issue of the parents, by representation.

And a non-lawyer advising someone that they are "all set" and don't need a will if they "like" what the intestate statute states, does not address whether the statute accomplishes what the testator intends and does not account for variables that may not be readily apparent. Furthermore if there are children involved, or children are anticipated, the intestate statute is entirely inadequate.

After working for a law firm for a number of years (in a different field and no, I'm not a lawyer), I know the value of hiring a professional. Despite the ridiculous mocking they sometimes endure, a good lawyer is truly worth every penny you pay them. They can foresee issues that would never occur to you and really protect you from others AND yourself. Our legal system is complex, steer clear of DIY law and keep away from the Saul Goodman types.

Even Ron Swanson found he needed an attorney. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FggS8Xfv3Ng

Try Iseman, Cunningham, Riester & Hyde for all around great service. Specifically Rich Frankel for wills .

A DIY will is NOT something I would risk.

Even a well-written will that is very explicit in specifying "who-gets-what" can be challenged in court and, even if the challenge is groundless, it can waste money in legal fees and drastically slow down the process of probating a will...not to mention cause a lot of stress for both the heir(s) and executor.

Even a well-written will can be challenged. I know a case where a decedent very clearly left the entirety of her small estate - just one piece real property and one bank account - to her only child. Her husband was already deceased. It was supposed to be very clear and simple. But a great-niece decide to challenge that very explicit will on the grounds that "well, the deceased probably shouldn't have inherited the property in question in the first place sixty years ago." The challenge itself was, of course, unsuccessful - the will leaving the estate to the deceased in the first place had been properly probated. But it was still enough to delay settlement of the estate by almost two years.

The lawyer who handled the above case said, "With ANY will, you have no idea who the #$%& is going to come out of nowhere with a #$%& claim."

A good estate lawyer is far better at writing a will can hold up to any challenge brought against it in court.

I am not an attorney, so have no direct skin in this game. But having had grandparents who died without a will, I would STRONGLY recommend getting a will even if you are fine with the NYS law order of inheritance as outlined by Alex above. It takes an incredibly long time to sort these things out when there is no will, and your descendents will be stuck dealing with bureaucracy for a lot longer than if you had a will. If you don't have any children, then even worse because some poor unsuspecting relative will have to deal with it. Seeing what my mother went through dealing with this gave me incentive to get a will before I even had many assets.

My grandparents on my father's side had more assets and a more complicated estate, including property in another country, but because they DID have a will, things the estate was settled much more quickly than that of my relatively poor maternal grandparents.

To each their own. I'm not saying that not purchasing the hard-earned experience of a lawyer is necessarily advisable for everyone. All I'm saying is that a will is not, strictly speaking, required and that there is law that handles that situation. And even in cases that a person wants to file a will, the services of an estate lawyer are not, strictly speaking, required. I have nothing against lawyers and no axe to grind.

As an aside, having a 'poor unsuspecting relative' have to handle whatever you may own (and owe) at the time of your death doesn't seem like too big an inconvenience considering that 1) that relative, we assume, is one of or the inheritor and 2) YOU ARE DEAD, as in you have ceased living, so your situation is a bit worse than theirs all told.

@Alex—it sounds like your position is that receiving an inheritance is always a good thing; it is not. I’ll concede that a person does not need a lawyer to do anything, but having been counsel to numerous estate administration or probate proceedings where the person did not have a Will, had a DIY Will or a Legalzoom Will, I can tell you that rarely do things go as the survivors expect and rarely have those documents accomplish what everyone thought they would and there have been instances where Surrogate’s Court judges have declined to probate such documents due to the massive deficiency of drafting and execution. It is never as simple as the person acting as the administrator (the intestate equivalent of an executor) filing a petition and inheriting everything. There is this “fun” requirement that all distributees of the decedent, whether they have a Will or not, be notified, which might sound like no big deal, but is an absolute nightmare when the decedent is estranged from most of their family or some of the distributees are in prison. There is also this horrible phenomenon that I have seen it too many times to dismiss: people change when there is money involved.

A few years ago I had a case where the decedent, who we will call Joe, died without a Will, without a surviving spouse, without issue (i.e.: children). He was survived by 5 of his 9 siblings and dozens of nieces and nephews. The value of the estate was $200,000 (which is not a large estate and consisted of a house, a savings account, a pension, and a vehicle). The laws of intestacy require notice to a certain class of distributees, which included the 5 surviving siblings (one who was under guardianship due to advanced age and dementia) and 9 nieces and nephews of his pre-deceased siblings. The niece who had the closest relationship to Joe and who stepped up to be the administrator of his estate, was not one of the nieces or nephews entitled to inherit (as her mother, Joe’s sister, was still alive); although she inherited nothing she was entitled to a commission for her services as administrator, which she declined. The sibling with dementia had a savvy enough guardian to realize that inheriting anything may have interrupted her ward’s entitlement to benefits and filed a disclaimer (a time sensitive matter), which meant that she was treated as having predeceased. I fielded several dozen phone calls from the nieces and nephews (who up until receiving notice of the estate proceeding had no idea that they would inherit anything from Uncle Joe) because they were angry they were not receiving more through the intestate proceeding and they did not like the statutory distribution (and angry beneficiaries who refuse to sign receipt and release documents for their inheritance can hold up the distribution of the estate and require costly court intervention). My client, the non-inheriting niece, the administrator, was endlessly hassled by her cousins to change the distribution, which she legally had no authority to do and no intention of doing anything outside of what I counseled her to do. If Joe had contacted an attorney and drafted a simply Will he could have avoided the need for his sibling who was under guardianship to have to file a disclaimer (of if she hadn’t had such a savvy guardian, she could have temporarily lost her benefits, or had to pay all of her inheritance directly over to good old NYS) and he would have avoided a bunch of greedy nieces and nephews causing his closest niece the distress that they did or the additional attorney fees involved in trying to manage their expectations.

Another “war story”: Mom was divorced and had 3 adult kids. Six months before she dies she remarries. Mom doesn’t make a will. The house that she and her new husband live in is owned only by her. Because she died without a Will, husband is entitled to certain exempt assets, $50,000 and half of the remaining assets of the estate; the children are entitled to the other half of the remaining assets. The only feasible way to distribute is to sell the house, which (1) has a mortgage on it and (2) would leave surviving spouse homeless as he could not afford to purchase another house and the mortgage payment on the house was less than rent would cost him. The story had a happy ending because 2 of her 3 children, who wanted to do everything they could to honor their mother and their step-father, decided to disclaim their interest in the estate and enabled a situation where the surviving spouse obtained a life estate in the home and the 1 other child to be granted a remainder interest in the property. If the decedent had drafted a Will, the entire situation could have been avoided by directing that the house go to her surviving spouse.

Colleen, I'm glad you jumped in with some stories. I have friends and family members who've been involved in estates with and without wills and it's an incredibly emotional and stressful situation for the survivors.

I'm going to throw a little piece of advice out there for folks along the lines of this topic: update your retirement beneficiary forms! Maybe when you joined your company 401(k) you were unmarried and put down a child or niece or parent as a beneficiary - if you've since been married, your spouse automatically becomes the beneficiary of your retirement plan assets. Maybe that's your intent, but maybe not. With your spouse's notarized consent, you can choose an alternate beneficiary. When it comes to second marriages, children, etc. (like in Colleen's last story) the surviving spouse may not be the suitable primary beneficiary for your retirement assets.

Since we're coming up on year-end you're probably getting forms and notices about your company benefits - if you haven't been provided one in a while - ask for a beneficiary form for your retirement plan to make sure your intentions are clear at this point in your life (this goes for IRAs too!).

Hey, maybe some of the lawyers on here who say it’s so important to hire them could get the “bonus points” mentioned in the post by telling us roughly what a simple will would cost? I imagine that their version of inexpensive is very different from mine.

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