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THE GOODS : Will a Lawyer-Free Will Compute?


Think of it as the final program.

It's "WillMaker 5" and while there are plenty of shoot-'em-up software game programs that simulate death, this one deals with the real thing. "WillMaker" allows you to make, in the comfort of your own home and without the expense of a lawyer, a legal will for the distribution of your belongings after you go off to the big hard disk in the sky.

This latest version of "WillMaker"-- available for about $40 in separate DOS, Windows and Macintosh versions--also allows you to make a "Living Will" to specify the extent of medical life-prolonging procedures to be undertaken if you are no longer capable of communicating your wishes. And it gives you the option of filling out a "Final Arrangements" document to state your preferences concerning burial, cremation and whether you want any kind of funeral ceremony.

These are heady matters to be trusted unto you and your computer, but "WillMaker" comes with an impressive pedigree. It's a product of the Berkeley-based Nolo Press, which has been publishing highly regarded do-it-yourself legal texts since 1971 when it debuted with a "How to Do Your Own Divorce" book that became a hit.

And who were the creators of "WillMaker?"

One is described in the preface to the 277-page book that comes with the program as being a yoga teacher, spinner and shepherdess who lives in a place called Enchanted Rabbit Mountain. Don't worry, she's the illustrator who did the drawings for the book (and did a nice job, too). The authors of the program are two lawyers who have been involved in several other self-help legal products, and a writer who is also president of the Bay Area Funeral Society (I guess that's not a conflict of interest, but it gave me pause).

The book and the software program, both of which are thankfully free of impenetrable legal jargon, make it clear that "WillMaker" cannot be used for every situation. If you have a huge estate and want to embark on complex tax-saving measures, you will probably need a lawyer and/or a financial planner. Also, with this program, you can't make conditional bequests such as: My rare soil-sample collection goes to Uncle Jim, only if he stops smoking.

"WillMaker" does, however, allow you a great deal of flexibility in deciding what to do with your estate. You can leave it all to one person or organization. On the other end of the scale, you can leave detailed instructions for who is to inherit specific items (the program allows for up to 100 of these specific bequests). Many people will opt for a combination, leaving the bulk of the estate to one person or a small group of people, and then list a few specific items to go to other individuals.

The program is valid in all states except Louisiana. In the other states, laws on wills do not differ greatly. Users punch in the name of their state to start so that the resulting will conforms to its laws.

Although the book that comes with "WillMaker" is well-written, clearly understandable and even interesting to those of us who have not thought much about wills, you don't have to read much of it before embarking on the program.

The software guides you through the process by asking a series of questions about what you've got to give and where you want it to go. Along the way, it alerts you to ways of handling situations to avoid certain taxes or fees. It suggests that you name alternative inheritors in case your primary beneficiaries do not survive you.

You are also guided in designating how you want debts owed to or incurred by you to be handled. And it provides for the formal naming of an executor.

Although technically painless, as computer processes go, using "WillMaker" certainly stirs much more deep-seated emotion than a round of Tetris. It's just you and your computer screen, planning for a time when you will no longer be around. The process is daunting and maybe even a little disturbing. Although "WillMaker" is unflaggingly encouraging-- "Congratulations! You have now finished specifying your wishes for your final arrangements," it cheerfully notes at one point--it's not a bad idea to have a significant other or good friend nearby when you do this. Bribe them with the promise you will leave them your Elvis key chain or other prized item.

When you complete the program, it prints out your documents and gives directions about how the signing of the forms is to be properly witnessed (it's not necessary in all cases to have them notarized). The program also gives you information about storing the documents and making alterations as your life situation changes.

The only addition to the program I would suggest would be at the very end, after all the forms are completed. At that point, I think it would be very cool if the program simply announced, "Game Over."

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