As online wills and DIY estate planning products become more common, you might wonder whether you, too, can save on the cost of a lawyer. In fact, most people can use a reputable product to make the estate planning documents they need. The tricky part? Recognizing the occasional circumstance in which someone might benefit from professional help.
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Below are some situations in which you should consider getting advice from an experienced estate planning attorney.
While most families won't end up in court fighting over a will, some certainly do. If you're worried about disputes—for example, you have children from a previous marriage who you expect will clash with your spouse—consider consulting a lawyer. An estate planning attorney can help you anticipate future problems, as well as identify and express your exact wishes for what you want to happen to your property.
Simply living abroad doesn't automatically disqualify you from using U.S.-based online wills and estate planning software. If you're temporarily working or studying abroad, or on active duty for the military, you probably still have ties to a U.S. state for estate planning purposes, and can make a will or living trust using a reputable DIY product that's based on U.S. laws. But if you've permanently relocated to another country, you should use a lawyer well-versed in the laws of the country or region where you live.
If you've moved abroad but own property in the U.S., you can still use a DIY product or form to make a financial power of attorney (POA). This document names someone you trust to manage that U.S. property on your behalf.
If you want to create a health care directive (also known as a "living will" and "medical power of attorney"), you should use the forms that are familiar to the medical professionals where you're currently living. This might mean consulting a lawyer in that country or using a standard form if one is available. Since a medical emergency can happen at any time, you want your health care directive to be legally valid immediately, in the country or region where you're living right now.
If you live in the U.S. but own property abroad, you'll also want to consult a lawyer familiar with the laws of the country where that property is located, in order to make plans for that property after your death.
Hardly anyone owns enough assets to trigger federal estate taxes when they die. Currently, for deaths in 2023, estates don't need to pay federal estate tax unless there's more than $12.92 million worth of property. This threshold amount is subject to change with the political climate, but even so, most people simply won't need to worry about it.
About a quarter of the U.S. states do impose their own state estate tax. While most of these states impose estate tax at a lower threshold than the federal estate tax—so that it's possible your estate will owe state estate tax but not federal estate tax—the tax rate for state estate tax is also lower.
If you own property valued in the millions and would like to explore ways to protect your assets from estate tax, consult an estate planning attorney who specializes in transferring wealth.
You should also talk to a lawyer if you have complex conditions or plans for the inheritance you leave.
Some people want to place conditions on gifts to their loved ones—for example, you want to leave money to a grandchild only if they graduate from college. While you might have good reasons for this restriction, conditional gifts can create confusion and lead to disputes over whether the condition has been fulfilled. We don't recommend making conditional gifts in your will or living trust, but if your heart is set on it, find an attorney to help.
Perhaps you want to leave property to one person (such as your spouse) for use during their lifetime, but then have it pass to a different person (such as your child from a former marriage) upon the first person's death. If you want to make an arrangement like this (called a "life estate"), you'll need a lawyer to help you set it up.
If you want to leave money to a loved one who has significant debt or is irresponsible with money, you might be concerned about how that inheritance will be spent. One solution is a spendthrift trust, in which you name a trusted person or institution to dole out the money to your loved one a little at the time. Or you could earmark the money to pay certain types of expenses, such as rent, directly. The property in the trust is also protected from most creditors. If this sounds like something you want in your estate plan, find a good estate planning lawyer.
If your loved one has special needs or a disability, take care in how you leave money or property to them. If your loved one receives government benefits, an increase in their assets can easily jeopardize their eligibility.
If your loved one already has a special needs trust set up on their behalf, you can make a simple will that leaves money to that special needs trust. But if your loved one doesn't have such an arrangement, see a lawyer, who can also help you fully explore your options for leaving gifts to someone with special needs.
If you haven't yet made arrangements (for example, in an operating agreement or partnership agreement) for what will happen to your business if you become incapacitated or die, you should get a lawyer's help to make a plan.
The exception is that if you own a simple sole proprietorship, you can usually use a reputable DIY product to leave your business interest to someone through your will or living trust. But if your business is particularly complex or is worth a substantial amount, you might still want to consult a lawyer.
If none of the above situations applies to you, you can likely use a DIY product to create your estate plan. For a self-help product that offers a complete set of estate planning documents (including a will, living trust, health care directive, financial power of attorney, transfer-on-death deed, and more), consider using Nolo's Quicken WillMaker. WillMaker is easy to use and affordable, and has been a trusted solution for over 30 years. It's available both online and as desktop software.
You might be surprised to hear that you don't need to hire a lawyer just to avoid probate. (See Why Avoid Probate?) You do, however, need a comprehensive DIY product that allows you to choose probate-avoidance strategies. A simple online will won't cut it when it comes to avoiding probate.
To keep your property out of probate after you die, you can make a living trust. Alternatively, a transfer-on-death deed (if your state allows transfer-on-death deeds) can also keep real estate, such as a home, out of probate. WillMaker allows you to make either document, and guides you step-by-step through the process.