Online Estate Planning Apps & Do-It-Yourself Software

Understand what your estate plan should include, decide what products suit your needs, or when you might be better served by using an estate planning attorney.

By , Attorney
Nolo

Do I need an Estate Planning Lawyer? Can I Do it Myself? Nolo's bestselling software can help you create your own estate plan, but before you go the do-it-yourself route, take moment to learn what your estate plan should include, which products might suit your needs, and when you might be better served by using an attorney.

Estate Planning Basics

A good estate plan helps protects your family and your property when you die or become incapacitated. Planning your estate generally includes:

  • deciding who will get your things when you die
  • naming an executor to wrap up your affairs
  • naming guardians for your children and their property
  • avoiding probate, and
  • preparing for a time when you may not be able to make your own financial or medical decisions.

To accomplish these goals, you may need a will, living trust, a living will, and powers of attorney. You probably won't need all of these documents, and you may be able to make most of them using a DIY product like Nolo's WillMaker & Trust. The sections below describe each of these key estate planning documents, including who needs to make which documents and whether you can make them without a lawyer.

Wills

Use a basic will to decide who will get your property, name an executor to wrap up your affairs, and name guardians for your children and their property. Because these are essential estate planning goals, most people should make a will. If you don't make a will (or create some other plan to distribute your property), your state's laws will decide where your property should go – usually to your spouse, children, or parents.

Most people can make a will without a lawyer. However, get legal advice from an attorney if you:

  • have a very large estate, over $12 million
  • own a business with other people
  • have strife with or are estranged from your family, or
  • want to place conditions on your gifts.

The last one -- putting conditions on gifts -- means leaving someone something in your will, but also saying that they can have it only under certain conditions. Examples: You want to leave your savings to your daughter but only if she stays sober, or you want to leave your house to your wife, but you want it to go to your sister after your wife dies. It is possible to make these kinds of limitations, but you'll need a lawyer's help.

If you decide to make your will yourself, use quality estate planning tools. You can find will forms in books, software, and online. Take your time when making your will and choose a will-making resource that clearly explains what you need to do and why. When you're done, read it carefully to make sure you understand what it says. Will language does not need to be complicated or convoluted – you should be able to understand every word. If you don't, find another will-making tool, or see a lawyer for help. See "Do-It-Yourself Wills" for more information on will-making options.

Living Trusts

Use a living trust to keep your property out of probate. Probate is the court process of distributing your property after your death. It can be expensive, time-consuming, and very often a big hassle for the family. Most estates do not benefit from probate, so it makes sense for those estates to use probate-avoidance tools, like living trusts. When you make a living trust, you transfer property into the trust, name beneficiaries for that property, and name someone to be trustee of the trust. When you die, the trustee simply transfers the property to the people you named – no probate court required.

Living trusts work well for those who own a significant amount of property (like a house) and want keep that property out of probate. But, unlike wills, not everyone needs a living trust because not every estate will benefit from avoiding probate. For example, you may not need a living trust if you:

  • don't own much property
  • want to leave everything to your spouse
  • plan to transfer most of your property through other probate-avoidance tools like transfer-on-death accounts or deeds, or
  • have a lot of debts.

Also, even if you have a living trust you should still make a will to name guardians for any young children and to name beneficiaries for any property that is not transferred into the trust.

Most people can make a basic living trust without a lawyer. You can make a living trust using books, software, or online programs. A living trust does not need to be complicated; however, creating a trust yourself takes more work than making a will because you must transfer property into the trust. This process is simple for many types of property, but it's more complicated for the types of property that have a title document -- like real estate. If you decide to make a living trust without a lawyer, choose a trust-making tool that explains the process clearly and walks you through every step. Like wills, the language of the trust itself does not need to be complicated or filled with legalese. You should understand every word – if you don't, find a new trust-making tool, or see a lawyer for help. See "Creating Your Own Living Trust" for more about these.

Financial Powers of Attorney

Use a financial power of attorney to name someone to take care of your finances when you aren't able to. If you make your power of attorney "durable" it will continue to be valid even if you become incapacitated. You can also make powers of attorney that aren't durable – these are useful for specific needs, like giving your brother the ability to sign checks for you while you're out of the country. However, you will want your power of attorney to be durable if you anticipate that there may be a time when someone else may need to take over your financial affairs because you are unwell.

When you make a financial durable power of attorney, you name someone to be your "attorney-in-fact" (or, in many states your "agent") and you also state exactly what powers you want that person to have. Because your attorney-in-fact will have control of your finances, it is essential that you name someone you trust completely.

You can make a financial power of attorney yourself if you know what powers you want to give your attorney-in-fact and if you use quality self-help tools. Good self-help tools will explain the pros and cons of each power and how to finalize your document to make it legal. Like wills and living trusts, you should easily understand your power of attorney; it does not need to contain complex or confusing language. If your power of attorney is not clear to you, find another self-help resource or consult an attorney for help.

Health Care Directives (Health Care Powers of Attorney and Living Wills)

Use a healthcare directive to do two things: 1) name a person who will make health care decisions for you when you cannot, and 2) state your wishes for health care, organ donation, and final arrangements.

In some states, these are two separate documents – the power of attorney for health care and the living will. Other states combine these documents into one form. The names of these forms vary somewhat by state, but every state allows you to do these two things.

Health care directives can be detailed and long, but they rarely require an attorney to draft. Instead, you can make one yourself using books, software, online programs, or forms from a hospital or other caregiving organization. Make sure the resources you use are specific to your state, explain your options, and are clear to you. If the health care directive form that you are using confuses you, find another form or consult a knowledgeable lawyer or medical professional for advice.

Drafting Your Own Estate Planning Documents

Most people can make basic estate planning documents without a lawyer. If you do, make sure you choose a quality self-help resource that:

  • gives clear instructions
  • explains what the document does
  • discusses your options
  • tells you when your situation warrants seeing an attorney, and
  • explains how to finalize the document to make it legal.

Finding quality self-help resources should not be hard. Take some time to shop around to make sure you get the tools that will work best for your circumstances. If you become confused or if you realize your situation may be too complicated to use self-help resources, consult an attorney for help.