It is possible to write a will all by yourself -- type up on a piece of paper detailed instructions on the distribution of your worldly goods after your death, without the help of an attorney. But if you are planning anything complicated, this might have all the authority of a grocery list that has been notarized.
"I've seen a lot of wills that aren't executed properly," said Danielle Mayoras, an estate planner and co-author of "Trial & Heirs: Famous Fortune Fights!" "I'm not saying you have to pay top dollar [for a lawyer], but people often leave simple things out."
Even if no one contests your will, the courts still have to follow the letter of the law. Many courts will not validate provisions if the will is not properly executed. Courts will also balk at provisions that do not make sense.
Even the online do-it-yourself sites tout the value of bringing in a lawyer when things get more complex than directly handing down all your assets to your only living relative.
Here is what can go wrong, and how to avoid it:
Naming an executor. Designating a trusted individual to carry out your last wishes is a complicated choice. Whom you choose "is the real linchpin to the proper closing of your estate," said Chas Rampenthal, general counsel for LegalZoom, a popular online legal site. Do not simply pick someone who cares about you, but someone who either has some financial acumen or knowledge of the law -- or better yet, both.
Leaving stuff to pets. "If you want to make sure that your pet is taken care of, then don't leave your pet money in your will," warns Rampenthal, who explains that in the eyes of the law, the consumer is then leaving property to property. "Instead, you need to provide for your pet's care through a human."
Putting conditions on heirs to receive payouts. This can lead to problems in court. "Often the conditions aren't spelled out with sufficient clarity," said Rampenthal. Sometimes the courts find the conditions illegal or impractical to enforce. For instance, said Rampenthal, if a parent wants their child to graduate from college before receiving money, "someone has to stick around and make sure that the condition is enforced, and that can mean paying an executor additional fees for a long time."
Designating unusual end-of-life decisions. The main problem here, said Robert Perez, a lawyer in Magnolia, Texas, is that some consumers confuse wills with living wills. If you put in your will, for instance, that you do not wish to be placed on life support in the event of a medical emergency, that document is not likely to be read until after you die, or possibly when you are in a lengthy coma. By then, it is too late.
Designating guardians for children. The failure to fill out a legal document designating a guardian for your children is a common error, say experts, as is not having a backup in case the first guardian gets sick or dies.
Funeral instructions. Most wills are not found or submitted to probate until after the funeral has taken place, said Rampenthal. If you are going to put your funeral instructions in a will, Rampenthal advises that you alert your executor -- the person you name to handle the details of the will.
"People will fight over scarves and jewelry, even though there's no value to them. It isn't the money so much as the principle over it," Doyle said.