The subject of wills is not one that most people like to talk about. Family members get nervous when they hear the topic come up during dinner-table conversations. It makes everyone feel old. And confused.
No one seems to understand all the legal twists and turns of wills and probate. And there seems to be no one to ask all the seemingly stupid questions that come to mind.
Book and Cassette
That's why it's a bit of marketing brilliance that Nolo Press has begun selling its "Simple Will Book" by Denis Clifford, accompanied by a 60-minute audio cassette that contains a general introduction--mostly in simple English--about the will-making process. The cassette even includes musical interludes between brief explanations of community property laws, disinheritance tips and the advantages of trusts for your children.
The tape will not and cannot replace the book, nor can it replace a trusted legal adviser. But it is a valuable introduction to those who know little or nothing about the process of preparing a will. The book and tape sell for $19.95. You can order the set by calling (800) 445-NOLO, outside the 415 area code.
There is really nothing all that complex about a will. It is a set of instructions that a court will use after you die, to make sure all your personal and financial affairs are in order--such relatively routine but extremely significant matters as who gets your house and car, who will be the legal guardian of your minor children, who will sell off your assets to pay outstanding taxes and which charities will benefit from your largess.
(In fact, many charities and colleges try to encourage their benefactors to name them in their wills, and even offer information on the will-making process. For instance, the Braille Institute encourages gifts and offers a free booklet on wills and bequests. Call (213) 663-1111.)
Of all the letters I receive, the most frequent questions have to do with wills. Many readers have recently asked about the validity of handwritten or so-called holographic wills. I've answered the question before, but because several people have asked again in the past few weeks, I'll repeat my answer.
Briefly, holographic wills are valid in California and about 25 other states. They must be written, dated and signed entirely by the person who is making the will. They need not be witnessed. (Other wills must be signed in the presence of witnesses who also sign the will.) But handwritten wills are definitely not a good idea. It is just too easy to make a mistake that will tie up your estate in probate court for years.
Even oral wills are valid in some states, but only under very special circumstances, such as when a person is near death.
If you don't want to hire a lawyer to prepare a will or to draft your own typed and witnessed will using such references as the "Simple Will Book," you may be able to use the fill-in-the-blanks will form authorized by state law.
Using the state-authorized form, you can arrange to leave property to a charity, family members or a friend. You can also use this will to appoint an executor of your estate (the person who will make sure your instructions are carried out) as well as a guardian for your children. Using the form with a trust provision, you can set aside money to take care of your children until they become adults.
The forms are available from the State Bar for $1. Send a self-addressed stamped (39 cents in postage) business-size envelope to Wills, P.O. Box 411, San Francisco, Calif. 94101.