live willfully, and write your will


shlep will let others describe the meaning of September 11, 2001 for the national psyche. Surely, though, the fragility and uncertainties of life that are so apparent when thinking of 9/11 should remind each of us to live in a willful, deliberate and conscious manner every day.
fragileGlass For self-help law advocates, September 11 becomes a good excuse to nag a little: If you haven’t written a will (or your current will no longer reflects your wishes), please stop procrastinating. Indeed, unless you have a complicated situation financially, there is no excuse that you can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Self-help materials are available online (from both free and inexpensive sources), or at your favorite bookstore, Library or software dealer. [See 10 Steps to Completing Your Will for a useful source of information and forms.]

The consumer-oriented legal reform group HALT has recently posted an 8-page Citizens Guide (part of a series) that is a very good place to get yourself started and oriented. In HALT’s Citizens Guide, Writing Your Will: No More Procrastination, you will find plain-English explanations of why you need a will, who can make a will, what makes a will legally valid, and many factors to think about.

Citing a 2004 study that found that even one-third of America’s wealthiest individuals do not have wills, HALT reminds us [listen up, libertarians!] that “if you die without a will (known as dying intestate), the state gets to decide who will get your property, who will act as your personal representative and who will be your children’s guardian. Of course, you don’t have to be congenitally anti-government to want to take the inheritance process into your own hands.

HALT says: “While anyone 18 or older who meets the above requirements can create a will, it’s particularly important to write your will if you marry, become a parent or acquire property you want to pass along someday.”  Here’s some of what HALT’s e-pamphlet has to say about doing a will yourself:


Can I write my own will?

For the vast majority of us, the answer is yes, especially if your estate planning needs are relatively simple. Your estate ceases to be simple, however, if it is worth more than the federal estate tax limit, set at $2 million per person ($4 million for married couples) until 2008. The amount per person climbs to $3.5 million by 2009, but Congress is scheduled to repeal that increased limit in 2010. If that happens, the federal estate tax limit reverts back to $1 million unless Congress extends the increase.

If the value of your estate is over that limit, it poses special federal tax-planning problems. Your will also becomes more complex if you want to set up special trusts or make conditional gifts.

There are many good sources of information that will help you write a will using self-help materials (or to decide to hire a lawyer). has a lot of free information at its Wills Resource Center, as well as a number of products to purchase, which are compared here. has also created two relevant podcasts: Do You Need a Will or Trust? and Can You Prepare Your Own Will?.  As usual, your reference librarian can assist you — perhaps by pulling Law for the Layperson (3rd Edition, 2006, 485 pp.), by Diane Murley and Amber Hewette, off the shelf.

update ((Jan. 11, 2007): At SSRN, you can dowload a lengthy paper aimed at the estate planning needs of “people of modest wealth”, titled  “Estate Planning for Persons with Less Than $5 Million” (March 2007), written by Blattmachr, Jonathan G.; Slade, Georgiana J.; and Crawford, Bridget J. The article explains that lifetime transfers are among the most effective ways to reduce estate taxes, and “details and evaluates eleven strategies that may apply to clients in the modest wealth category.” 

HALTBestBuyN shlep has no monetary interest in your choosing one source of materials over another, but we have come to respect HALT’s opinion on the quality of self-help materials that it reviews. Its Do-It-Yourself Best Buys lists the following materials under the category of Wills:

NoloSimpleWillBook Nolo’s Simple Will Book, by attorney Denis Clifford (available in hardcopy or as an e-book).

Quicken’s WillMaker Plus 2007 software (also downloadable) QuickenWillMaker

BroderbundWillWriterDeluxe Broderbund’s WillWriter Deluxe software.
Stop procrastinating and write your will! Then, if you’re on a roll, check out more HALT resources on Estate Planning and Avoiding Probate.



BuckLogoN Country (and Bakersfield) music star Buck Owens surely had a will when he died last year. But, check out HALT’s Writing Your Will to read about the 34-year battle that ensued when rock guitar legend Jimi Hendrix died at 20 intestate.


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