Heed pitfalls if writing will


December 04, 2007|By DAN THANH DANG

The Q:

Practically everything these days can be done by yourself, from do-it-yourself home renovations to DIY investing.

Reader Don McCardell of Baltimore wants to know if this DIY attitude can be applied to writing up his own last will and testament.

"Do I have to hire an attorney or can I do this on my own?" McCardell said. "I was wondering if I could write something simple, get two witnesses, maybe a notary and would that be legally binding?"

The A:

A will is a person's declaration of how he or she wants their property disposed of after their death.

You can bet your bottom dollar that hotel titan Leona Helmsley likely had the help of attorneys when her last will was drafted to divvy up the $4 billion fortune she left behind to her Maltese, charitable trusts, chauffeur and select relatives.

Most of us, though, don't have such complicated finances to deal with when it comes to drafting a will. Experts say that it's helpful to consult with an estate planning lawyer who understands the technical issues behind drafting wills, the proper execution of wills and the pitfalls you want to avoid, so your benefactors don't end up in probate litigation.

But, the simple answer to this question is that you don't necessarily need an attorney to make a will valid.

To do it yourself in Maryland, a will must be written or typed to have any legal effect. Video or audiotaped wills are not permitted, according to law firm Kramer & Connolly.

You must be over the age of 18 and legally competent to make a will. In addition, the will must be signed by the person making the will, who is often called the testator or testatrix, according to the state Register of Wills.

Then, the will must be attested and signed by two credible witnesses in the presence of the person making the will. Although it is not prohibited, Kramer & Connolly said, beneficiaries are discouraged from witnessing wills. If a will is contested, a document witnessed by a beneficiary could be met with skepticism. Better to use witnesses over 18 who have no stake in the process.

Finally, in Maryland, you don't have to notarize your will to make it valid. But you may file it with the Register of Wills for safekeeping. For a nominal fee, you can bring your will sealed in an envelope with your name and Social Security number clearly legible on the cover to the Register of Wills.

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@ baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at baltimoresun.com/consuming.

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