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4 reasons you should avoid a do-it-yourself will

In today's culture, we look to the internet to answer virtually every problem or question that comes to mind. Wikipedia, YouTube and Google have become our go-to "experts," regardless of the fact that the information they offer may be unreliable or downright dangerous.

This pursuit of free information and guidance extends to estate planning. To save money on legal fees, you may have considered turning to the Web to draft your own will. The online forms are widely available and seem easy enough, so why not?

Here are four reasons why you should avoid the do-it-yourself approach to creating a will:

Not using the proper language could void the will. It isn't enough to simply list your assets and possessions along with the name of the person who should receive them after you're gone. In order for the will to be valid, it must be extremely specific and use words of "testamentary intention." In other words, it has to use language that specifies your every intent. Any ambiguity whatsoever -- even language such as "I would like" -- could render your homemade will null and void.

It must stand up to probate. Probate rules vary from state to state, and some are more complicated than others. Do you know the rules of your state? An estate planning attorney does.

Your will may create major disputes after you're gone: Any gray areas in your DIY last will and testament must be interpreted by a court and your survivors. Even if your family members are reasonable people who get along most of the time, nothing divides a family faster than a deceased person's final wishes in writing. If there is any room for interpretation that benefits one family member over the other, you can guarantee that it will be contested. This will likely lead to legal fees for your loved ones, not to mention long-lasting personal conflicts.

You may not have considered everything. An estate planning attorney does more than just help with the technical and administrative aspects of creating a will. He or she can also act as a knowledgeable, experienced adviser. Even if you don't have any children or significant wealth, there are issues an online form can't address: How will your debts and taxes be paid after you die? Perhaps one of your heirs or assets is in another country, which will bring into play international laws. An attorney can ensure no stone is left unturned as you draft your will.

So what can you do if you recognize the dangers of a DIY will but are concerned about the cost of hiring an estate planning attorney? First and foremost, do as much prep work as you can before meeting with a lawyer. Start by making a list of all your assets, debts and other liabilities, and gather any estate planning-related documents you may already have, including beneficiary designations for your 401K accounts, property valuations or previous wills. You might also have a list of beneficiaries to whom you plan to leave assets or heirlooms. Finally, make a list of questions to ask the attorney during your initial consultation. The more prepared you are beforehand, the more efficient and cost-effective the process will be.

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