February 1, 2004
Cheryl Collins-McLemore is only 37 years of age, but she’s already considering her mortality. In the event of her imminent death, she does not want to be kept on life support; desires for her body to be donated to science; wishes for a particular family member to raise her 10-year-old daughter, Hope; and wants all of her assets distributed in a specific way.
“If I passed away today, none of my wishes would be granted because my family members have no idea what I want and I haven’t expressed them in writing,” says Collins-McLemore. “I know the importance of a will, but I don’t want to spend money on expensive lawyers to do a simple will. I would like to do my own will. I just don’t know where to start.”
According to Nolo’s Simple Will Book (Nolo Press; $36.99) by attorney Denis Clifford, as many as 66% of Americans do not have a will. But before you decide to handle legal matters yourself, “at least try to get a consultation with a lawyer, which can cost less than $100,” says Keith Watters of Keith Watters & Associates law firm in Washington, D.C., and past president of the National Bar Association. “If it’s a reputable lawyer, he will advise you to do it yourself or hire him to do it because you can get into trouble [if it’s not done properly].
“Whether or not you do your own will or handle other legal matters depends on your education, personal level of sophistication, and understanding of the subject,” says Watters. “If you would like to attempt to do a simple will [when there is little or no real property or assets] yourself, legal forms can be found at stores like Office Depot and Staples, online Websites, software programs, and books.”
Other than legal service programs for the poor, such as www.LawHelp.org and The Legal Aid Society, lawyers and law firms do not offer free or low-cost legal assistance. However, several Websites offer free legal forms such as wills, bankruptcy, landlord—tenant agreements, power of attorney, and various other legal documents, which can be downloaded at www.allaboutforms.com, www.findforms.com, and www.lawinfo.com.
Consumers can handle some legal issues themselves such as landlord—tenant disputes, small business incorporation, and divorce mediation, says Janet Portman, book and software publisher for Nolo Press. “Get a good self-help legal book that is up-to-date, complete, accurate, and will educate you. After your research, you can decide whether to handle it on your own or seek legal counsel.”
If you have more than $10,000 in assets, you should seek counsel, says Watters. “You should definitely see a lawyer for accidents involving serious injuries, selling or buying a business, sexual harassment in the workplace, and protecting any significant creative work.”
For more information, read The Complete Book of Business & Legal Forms by Lynne Ann Frasier (Sourcebooks Trade; $18.95) and Everyday Legal Forms & Agreements Made E-Z by Mario D. German (Made E-Z Products; $24.95).
Five Steps to Creating a Will
Once you have done your research and decided whether you