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Getting Your Will Right

What a lawyer does

“You’ve got to begin with some kind of a balance sheet,” said Weidenfeld. This would include a summary of your assets—real estate, cars, investments, the old oak cabinet that your cabinetmaker grandad built—and also any entitlements such as pensions and annuities.

The next step, in Weidenfeld’s opinion, is to find a lawyer. While that’s just what you would expect someone who practices estate law to say, I think it’s valid. Although there are many online sites where you can prepare a will at lower cost, in a situation as fraught and as complicated as this one, I think it pays to spend the money on someone who is thoroughly familiar with the territory and who can help guide you through the emotional minefields.

I recently heard a story that underscores this point. It was the case of a 70-year-old man, a loving son who lived near his mother and who was her principal caretaker, taking her out to dinner every week and doing much more as well. When he did his will online, he didn’t think about the prospect that he could die before she did. But that’s just what happened. Because there was no one sitting at his side to raise that possibility, he made no provision for her care in the event he died first. Instead, he left everything to his girlfriend, which he probably wouldn’t have done if he had foreseen what could happen.

I’m not a fan of turning to lawyers in every situation. In divorces, for instance, it can be more cost-effective to turn to a financial planner. And in many situations, online help or just common sense can be enough.

For those who can’t afford a lawyer on their own, there is help available. Try or the AARP Legal Services Network (1-866-330-0753 toll-free).

What an experienced lawyer can do is look at the interrelationships and raise questions, like what you want done if one of your children predeceases you. “You may want to leave something to grandchildren, or you may want to put it in a trust, or you may want to leave it to the [child’s] spouse because you have such a warm, close relationship,” Weidenfeld said. “This process and these decisions require human intelligence, and, as good as artificial intelligence is, it’s not that good.”

Martha M. Hamilton writes a regular column for Bulletin Today on retirement and financial issues.

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