California only lets you pay a lawyer for a will or DIY it. Why?

If you’re trying to avoid religion or politics this Thanksgiving dinner, try estate planning. After all, a will is more than just a piece of paper — it’s an opportunity to shape your legacy, assist those you love and advance the causes you believe in.

Yet, in California, arbitrary and vague rules have largely made it impossible to create one without expensive attorneys. That needs to change.

Creating a will in California can cost upward of $400 in attorney fees. That price is too steep for many, but a relative bargain when compared to the alternative — probate — which may be necessary if someone dies without a will. If a loved one’s estate goes to probate, then the family may be on the hook for substantial costs — an attorney may receive $4,000 to guide an estate valued at $100,000 through the probate process.

In some ways, California law acknowledges this financial barrier. State law allows Californians to handwrite their will, even without witnesses. But since most people don’t know how to correctly draft a legally enforceable will, there is real potential for making costly mistakes.

Why should only options be choosing between expensive legal fees or gambling on an uninformed individual’s grasp of the probate code?

In truth, probate code is not so complex as to require going to three years of law school and passing the bar to demonstrate your competency. What makes a will a complex document isn’t the law but rather the fact that it is an expression of our complex relationships — to dear friends, to significant others, to blood relatives and to particular causes. Arguably a good therapist is more important to crafting a will than an expensive lawyer. An honest lawyer would tell you as much.

Unfortunately, the law does not reflect that reality.

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