One thing the world needs -- besides peace, prosperity and nonfattening chocolate-chip cookies -- is a simple, do-it-yourself will that stands up in court. California developed the first one, in 1983. Wisconsin and Maine wrote different versions. And that's all.
States will accept do-it-yourself handwritten wills if they're properly done -- with all the i's dotted and t's crossed. But these homespun documents often fail to meet the legal standard for a valid will. For example, they may not have been signed by enough witnesses. Also, their provisions may be vague -- which could cause a judge to throw a will out of court.
Anyone who has privately written a will and slipped it secretly into a drawer should do some research to see if it will hold up. It is not as easy as it ought to be to leave your property to the people who should have it.
In the three states that have them, do-it-yourself wills are a simple matter of filling in the blanks on a standard form or checking the appropriate box. You sign at the bottom, and voila! -- a legal and dependable will.
Even with these simple documents, the instructions can be confusing. So users are well advised to get help. But they don't have to go to a lawyer. "They could go to a paralegal or to someone trained to assist an elderly group," attorney Francis J. Collin of Napa, Calif., told my associate, Virginia Wilson.
These wills have limitations. In California and Wisconsin, they were developed for couples and parents of young children. In Maine, they're more useful to older couples whose children are grown. In general, they're for people with small estates, uncomplicated families and uncomplicated finances.
Nevertheless, for those who can use them -- and potentially, millions can -- these documents are wonderful. So the question is, why isn't every state getting into the act? One answer seems to be that some lawyers, and the state legislators they talk to, aren't very happy about the idea.
Last year, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) devised standard language for certain types of wills that lawyers could use to write documents that would be simple and cheap. They're aimed at married couples with children, and they would be good in all the states that adopted the proposal. A layman could use the language to write a valid will himself.
This concept isn't as simple as the fill-in-the-blanks will, which seems to me to be the best idea. But it does give families a greater variety of choice.
Unfortunately, lawyers are greeting it with the sound of one hand clapping. In February, the board of governors of the American Bar Association recommended that the organization withhold its approval from the proposed standard will. "If the legal profession takes a resistant stance, the chance of getting it through state legislatures gets poorer and poorer," says the NCCUSL's John McCabe.
A bill for the standard-language will already has lost in the North Dakota legislature. Similar legislation has been introduced in Minnesota and also is being considered in Michigan, but right now there is little interest anywhere else.
The ABA has no formal position on the pros and cons of the NCCUSL's standard will. Accounts of the meeting in which it was rejected indicate that some lawyers supported the idea, some smothered it in self-serving detail, some thought there were better ways of proceeding. But any way you slice it, the national organization appears to think the will business is fine just the way it is.
In California, it was different. The state bar association itself sponsored and promoted the fill-in-the-blanks will. So far, the group has distributed about 250,000 of the forms, which cost $1 each. "The argument that lawyers would lose business wasn't meaningful here, because there was already a huge section of the state's population that wouldn't go to lawyers," Collin says. People from other states cannot use the will forms of California, Wisconsin or Maine; they need something in which the language has been approved by their own state legislatures. To get that approval, groups of citizens will have to band together and make a noise.
These wills work -- and work well -- in the states that use them. All the dire warnings -- about how innocent people would be hoodwinked -- turned out to be untrue. But state legislatures often are dominated by lawyers, who are happy with the traditional ways of doing business. Citizens will have to tread on the toes of legislators to get them to change.