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How to Write a Will

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Dear Savvy Senior,

Though it may seem hard to believe, at age 65, I never have gotten around to making a will, but I'd like to now. My question is: Do I need to hire a lawyer to write my will, or can I do it myself? I want to get my affairs in order, but I hate paying an attorney fee if I don't have to.

Getting Organized

Dear Getting,

It's not hard to believe at all. Fewer than half of American adults have a will, mainly because they either haven't thought about it or gotten around to it, or they've put it off because they don't want to think about dying.

But having a will is important because it ensures that your money and property are distributed to the people you want to receive it after your death.

If you die without a will, your estate will be settled in accordance with state law. Details vary by state, but assets typically are distributed using a hierarchy of survivors. Assets go to first to a spouse, then to children, then your siblings, and so on.

You also need to be aware that certain accounts take precedence over a will. If you jointly own a home or a bank account, for example, the house, and the funds in the account, will go to the joint holder, even if your will directs otherwise. Similarly, retirement accounts and life insurance policies are distributed to the beneficiaries you designate, so it is important to keep them up-to-date too.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

Not necessarily. Creating a will with a do-it-yourself software program may be acceptable in some cases, particularly if you're single and have a modest bank account.

But if you have significant financial assets or a complex family situation, like a blended family or child with special needs, it's best to seek professional advice. An experienced lawyer can make sure you cover all your bases, which can help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you're gone.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA.org) and the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel (ACTEC.org) websites are good resources that have directories to help you find someone in your area.

Costs will vary depending on your location and the complexity of your situation, but you can expect to pay somewhere between $200 and $1,500 to get your will made. To help you save, shop around and get price quotes from several different firms. And before you meet with an attorney, make a detailed list of your assets and accounts to help make your visit more efficient.

If money is tight, check with your state's bar association (see www.FindLegalHelp.org) to find low-cost legal help in your area. Or call the Eldercare Locater at 800-677-1116 for a referral.

If you are interested in a do-it-yourself will, one of the best options is the Quicken WillMaker Plus 2018 software (available at NOLO.com) that costs $70, works with Windows personal computers and Macs, and is valid in every state except Louisiana.

It's also recommend that if you do create your own will, it's wise to have a lawyer review it to make sure it covers all the important bases.

Where to Store It?

Once your will is written, the best place to keep it is either in a fireproof safe or file cabinet at home, or in a safe deposit box in your bank. But make sure your executor knows where it is and has access to it. Or, if a professional prepares your will, keep the original document at your lawyer's office. Also, be sure to update your will if your family or financial circumstances change, or if you move to another state.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.

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