A “simple will” means different things to different people. If you’re not a legal professional, you may think that if you don’t have much property to bequeath, writing a will should be simple. If you ask an attorney for a simple will, however, he will take it to mean that you want to leave everything to your spouse, and when your spouse dies, it passes on to your children. If you have neither a spouse nor children, you might want to leave all your assets to one individual. A simple will means that you’re not dividing your life’s possessions among a multitude of beneficiaries. It has nothing to do with the size of your estate.
Do-it-yourself wills, such as those you might find in a legal supply store or on the Internet, usually accommodate simple wills, not complex estates. You can find formats to follow online and write your own simple will for free. You can also purchase estate planning kits that include wills and other documents, such as powers of attorney, for about $30 to $60 at the time of publication. Some legal websites sell software you can install on your computer to create your own documents. These programs usually cost between $30 and $50.
If you choose to use a will kit or a software package, you run the risk of your will not conforming to the laws in your particular state. A simple will might also fail to accommodate some special circumstance in your life. It could do your estate more harm than good, such as by incurring estate taxes you might otherwise have avoided. You can educate yourself -- often free of charge -- to make sure a simple will really does meet your needs. Various legal websites, as well as the American Bar Association, offer instructional booklets and information online.
Your other option is to hire an attorney to draft your simple will. If your estate is such that a simple will can adequately transfer your property, the cost is not prohibitive, at least not compared to an attorney’s fees for more complex wills. Many attorneys charge a flat rate for the service -- between about $300 and $600 at the time of publication -- which usually includes meeting with you to make sure that a simple will really does work for you. If it does not, the attorney can tweak your will to accommodate your personal situation, adding language that would not necessarily be included in a kit or software package. You’ll pay more, but you'll be more confident that the will you have is the will you need.
If you use an attorney who does not offer a flat rate for a simple will but bills you by the hour for his services, you can take steps to keep the hours from adding up. Make a comprehensive list of your assets and your wishes for your beneficiaries before you meet with him. Otherwise, the first half of your meeting will be a fact-finding mission as he questions you to determine this information. You can also draw up your own will and limit his help to reviewing it and making any necessary changes. Hourly rates for attorneys can cover a wide range, anywhere from $50 to $1,000. An attorney’s hourly rate is usually commensurate with his experience and expertise.