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How to Prepare Your Will

Q. You often hear that you can write down your will on a piece of paper, and that's all you need to make it official. Is this true?

A. In many states, yes, provided the will is handwritten and signed. "However, such wills can be hard to authenticate later on," says Mary Randolph, a lawyer and editor at nolo.com, a Web site that demystifies legal issues. Most people don't need a lawyer to make a will. "Unless you have a large estate or a disabled child who needs a special trust, all you need is some will-making software customized for your state," Randolph says.

Nolo sells a kit that includes a book and Quicken Willmaker for $60. Fill out and print the forms, and get three people to verify it's your will by signing it (there's no need for them to read it) in front of a notary. Then you sign it. For a small fee, the notary signs it to attest its authenticity. "Store it in a safe place in your house, such as a lockbox, and be sure the executor you name in your will knows where it is," she says.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2004.