Can I create a will online?

Photo: Zaleski

 Q. We just had a baby and we know we need a will. Can we just do this online? And are there any other estate documents we need? We don’t have a lot of money, but we’re trying to save for the future.

A. You’re smart to know you need a will.

Without one, the state of New Jersey will decide who takes care of your minor children if you die unexpectedly.

Meeting with an estate planning attorney will cost you, but there’s a value-add. The estate planning attorney may ask you questions or bring up circumstances that you aren’t thinking of on your own.

But if money is an issue, a will prepared with online options is definitely better than nothing.

“Attorneys do not like to admit it, but some of the sites that prepare wills do a fairly good job,” said Nancy Heslin Reading, an estate planning attorney and elder law attorney with Reading Law Firm in Newton.

If you decide to go online, Reading said you should be sure that the will you get is prepared according to the laws of the state of New Jersey because all fifty states have different ways of doing things.

But, Reading said, there are times that the online templates, even if legal, aren’t right for the person who completes the will.

She said, for example, imagine a person who had children from a prior marriage and intended to include them in the will. If the will isn’t properly drafted, it’s possible those children would be listed as contingent beneficiaries, which means the kids would only inherit funds if the current present spouse died.

“Often, too, the person whose will it is doesn’t even understand what a `contingent beneficiary’ is,” she said. “They tell their kids that they are included in their will, but do not explain that there is an excellent chance that the kids from the first marriage will inherit nothing because they have only been named as contingent beneficiaries.”

In your case, as a young family, you need more than a simple will, Reading said.

“You want a will that spells out who is your choice to become the guardian(s) of your minor children should both of you be killed in a common disaster such as a car crash, she said.

She said you also want to make provision for your estate to be liquidated and the proceeds held in trust for the benefit of your minor children, and you want to name a trustee or trustees to oversee that trust. And, of course, you want to give very careful thought as to who you want to name as guardian and trustee.

Reading said most clients she sees start by saying, “I just want a simple will.” But, she said, most clients mean that when they die, they want the estate administration to be easy and clear for their executor. Those are two very different things, she said.

“A simple will can sometimes make for a protracted and difficult administration because the will is silent as to a number of issues that have to be addressed after you die,” she said.

You need to ask yourself: Who will care for them the way you do? Who will keep the children with the friends and schools that are all they have every known? Who will manage the trust wisely so that it will be there for the big expenses as your children grow? This is especially key for a small trust that can so easily be dissipated by fees and commissions.

Before you head online, Reading recommends you look for an attorney who understands the issues that concern you, and then ask them if you can pay their attorneys’ fees over several months. And even before you have that conversation, figure out what you can afford to pay per month so that you can tell the attorney over how many months you can pay the bill.

While you’re at it, Reading said, you definitely want to also have the attorney prepare a durable power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney and advance directive.

She said many couples find that it takes a long time to think through all these issues because they raise tough questions.

“I would encourage you to get something in writing even if it is only a handwritten letter expressing your wishes as you know them if you won’t be getting to an attorney right away,” she said. “Even an informal document can offer valuable guidance to our family, the surrogate and the court should you die unexpectedly. Just be sure to leave the letter where it can easily be found.”

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This story was first posted in November 2014. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.