Consumer Reports Monday Adviser Tests Three Software Programs
Yonkers, NY – A well-written will is essential, but you don’t necessarily need an attorney to write it. A number of software providers promise to help you draft a legal will for far less than you’d pay a lawyer.
The experts at Consumer Reports Money Adviser tested three electronic offerings: LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Quicken WillMaker Plus. The result: All three are better than nothing if you have no will. But unless your needs are very simple—say, you want to leave everything to your spouse with no other provisions—none of them is likely to meet your needs. And CRMA found problems with all three.
First a CRMA reporter created profiles of individuals from three different New York families. Then, she completed the interviews as if she were those individuals, drafting nine wills in all. The wills and interview records—with product identification hidden—were sent to a law school professor who specializes in estates and trusts, who judged each product on how comprehensive the interviews were and how much information was provided, and on the overall quality of the wills. Then, CRMA’s reporter evaluated the software for ease of use.
LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer allow you to create a will online and WillMakerPlus is available as either a download or a CD-ROM. WillMaker Plus was the best of the three. It was competent—though far from ideal—for drawing up a simple will. Rocket Lawyer also made a good simple will, provided comprehensive information, and had an interview that handled most needs. But consumers would be better off consulting an attorney for more complex cases.
“We found one good use for all three of these products—education,” said Tobie Stanger, Senior Editor, Consumer Reports Money Adviser. “Going through the interviews forces you to think about issues like who should be the alternative executor, and who gets your estate if your spouse and kids don’t survive you. This information is easier to digest in interview form than reading is as straight estate law.”
Some of the problems that CRMA encountered with all three included the following:
Outdated information. CRMA tested the products in mid-March, and two referred to federal estate-tax limits that were outdated as of January 1st.
Insufficient customization. The products rarely referred in detail to state estate law. So they offered no guidance on how states treat wills that, for instance, fail to leave property to children born after a will is signed. (WillMaker Plus doesn’t do Louisiana wills because of the state’s unique estate laws; Rocket Lawyer provides a Louisiana will but recommends that consumers consult a lawyer.)
Too little flexibility. CRMA found it hard to distribute property the way they wanted to. WillMaker Plus, for instance, provided arbitrary age and time limits for some provisions. The program wouldn’t let a child’s trust go beyond age 35 or set up conditions on bequests in a will, such as stipulating that a child receive money only after finishing college.
Too much flexibility. After you finish the Rocket Lawyer interview, the program allows you to edit your completed will. LegalZoom lets you put anything you like in the special-directives section. Both features could lead you to add clauses that contradict other parts of your will.
Incompleteness. None of the packages created a special-needs trust. Only WillMaker Plus gave information on registered domestic partnerships and included a pet trust in its main interview. None of them touched on “digital assets,” such as ownership and management of server-stored documents and photos. And none dealt with specifics on compensating executors. (LegalZoom sells a stand-alone pet-protection agreement. Rocket Lawyer says it’s adding pet and digital-assets options this summer. And WillMaker Plus 2012 will address digital assets.)
No way to handle some tax issues. None of the products explained how to structure trusts to reduce estate-tax liability. With the current federal estate-tax floor mirrored in many state laws—$5 million per person, $10 million per couple—most people won’t have to worry about federal or state estate taxes. But some states set limits far lower. New York, for instance, levies estate tax on assets of $1 million or more.
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