There's nothing like tax time to remind you of those financial-planning goals you've been meaning to get around to. If writing a will is on that list, Internet sites boast cheap and easy solutions - incentive, perhaps, for even the most dogged procrastinators.
If you're the do-it-yourself type, you'll probably be comfortable having a website, rather than a lawyer, walk you through the creation of your will. More than half a dozen such sites offer services for $20 to $100.
But you might find there's good reason to spend a little more time and money to sit down with someone face to face. "It is possible that an online service can provide exactly what's necessary, soup to nuts, but there's a measure of caveat emptor there, too - consumers have to be very concerned," says William Hornsby, staff counsel in the American Bar Association's Division for Legal Services. "For some people, this is the most important document they'll ever have.... Unfortunately, by the time flaws in wills are determined, the person who executed it is not there to testify as to how it should have been."
Some online services do much to allay these concerns. The forms on most sites are state-specific, and you can read extensive information as you fill out your will. MyLawyer.com ($29.95 for a basic will) and BuildaWill.com ($19.95) allow you to create the documents and decide if you're satisfied before you have to pay to print them. LegalZoom.com ($59) has paralegals prepare the will after you complete the forms online.
"We're really targeting people who aren't seeing lawyers to do a will ... maybe because they are intimidated by the process or they procrastinate," says William Kappaz, president and cofounder of BuildaWill in Arlington, Va. The site helps users first determine if their situations are too complex and require an estate-planning lawyer, but once they go forward, documents change to fit a wide range of inheritance and guardianship scenarios. With 50,000 customers so far, Mr. Kappaz says he's confident that the end result "is going to be equal to or better than most wills that come out of a law firm."
Here are some points to consider when comparing online wills:
• Find out if the website complies with the American Bar Association's best-practices guidelines. Some will advertise that feature, but with others, you may need to inquire.
• See if the website contains an option to get advice directly from a lawyer (usually via e-mail). There is often an extra fee for this service so find out how much it is.
• Determine whether privacy safeguards are sufficient. Is information encrypted, or destroyed after a certain length of time? Some sites offer a privacy guarantee, while others don't state privacy policies at all.
• Look for a site that guarantees your money back if you're not satisfied.
• Check if you can change or update the documents. Time frames for changes generally range from one year to 10 years, but sometimes changes cost extra.
In addition, check the prices of some local attorneys to determine how much you'd really save by creating a will online. Mr. Hornsby of the ABA says websites sometimes mislead people by comparing their prices with exaggerated estimates of lawyers' fees.
Iowa appears to be the only state where you can get the best of both worlds. About three years ago, the law firm Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa started offering simple wills for free. Clients fill out the documents on a website created by the firm, but they have to come to the office to sign. Because questions can arise in court about the validity of wills, having a lawyer as a witness is helpful, says president David Beckman.
"If you just fill out one of these [online forms] and go to your neighbors and have them sign, you've got to find the neighbors [later] to make it legal," he says. "The way people move around ... are they going to remember? Will they be in town?"
Substituting Web services for lawyers or estate planners may also mean key information stays buried, says Kathy Mandelbaum, a professor at Temple University's law school in Philadelphia. Sometimes a level of personal trust is needed for people to talk about certain aspects of their family. And that can affect the way a will should be constructed. "I used to joke that I was part psychiatrist," Ms. Mandelbaum says of her many years as an estate planner.
What everyone seems to agree upon is that creating a will is better than going without one. About 57 percent of American adults haven't taken that advice yet, according to a survey last fall by the legal-information company FindLaw.
If you die "intestate" - without a will - state laws govern how your assets will be distributed, and it's rarely the way you would have wanted it, experts say. To dramatize the point, the National Association of Financial & Estate Planning likens it to "taking your property and attempting to throw it to your heirs on the other side of a deep chasm, a chasm that is filled with hazards" - such as courts, creditors, lawsuits, and taxes.