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Can’t afford an estate plan? Here’s what you can do without spending a fortune

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Estate planning isn't only for the wealthy — yet the majority of Americans don't have a plan in place.

Plans may include a will, powers of attorney and a living will — also known as an advance directive. Less than one-third of Americans have one or more such documents, according to a 2020 survey of 2,400 people by and YouGov.

While many folks don't like to face the thought of their own mortality, they may also think preparing for it is too expensive, said Steve Parrish, co-director of the Center for Retirement Income at The American College of Financial Services.

"The perception of cost is clearly one of the things that keeps people from doing it," he said. "In some cases, you take certain steps and the costs aren't so high."

Here is how you can get an estate plan in place without it costing you a bundle.

A standard will through an attorney

Why you need a will no matter how few assets you have
Why you need a will no matter how few assets you have

Prices can range widely if you are working with an attorney — from under $1,000 for a standard will and powers of attorney to between $7,000 and $10,000 for complex estates.

A standard will be good enough for a lot of people and it doesn't cost as much as people think, Parrish said.

You'll name the executor, who will oversee any distribution of assets and deal with creditors, and a guardian, if you have children.

When there are certain assets you want to give to specific people, you can write what's called a precatory letter. That letter spells out your wishes and is attached to the will, Parrish explained. You can make changes to it without amending your will.

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Wills can become complicated if you or your spouse have been married before or have a mixed family, as well as if you want a trust in place.

Estate attorney Patrick Jennison, located in Bakersfield, California, charges a base fee of $3,500 for estate planning. His documents include a living trust, which he believes is essential. A living trust, created while you are still alive, holds your assets and directs what you'd like to happen to them upon your death.

It also skirts probate, which is the legal process that takes place after death to review the will and other matters. Probate is not required to transfer those assets after death if you have trust.

Jennison believes not having an estate plan may wind up costing more post-death.

"It tends to be much more expensive and much more complicated on the back end," he said.

"The probate process is expensive; you have court costs, attorney fees that are significantly more post death."

Online wills

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Online wills are less expensive than working with an attorney. For instance, LegalZoom charges $89 for a basic will, $99 for a comprehensive one and $179 for an estate plan bundle. Nolo's Quicken WillMaker and Trust offers over 35 documents for $99.

If you are going to use an online service, do your homework

"It is a bit like a loaded weapon," Jennison said. "You need to have some training and some understanding of how to use it.

"It can be used properly or improperly."

Parrish agrees, noting that you should know what you want to accomplish before you do it.

"An attorney will ask some of the good questions you didn't think to consider," he said.

Protecting assets without a will

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If you don't have a will, you can still pass down some of your assets by titling them. There are several different ways to do this.

Having another owner on the asset, such as real estate, bank accounts and personal property, is called joint tenancy with rights of survivorship. When you die, the property automatically passes to the surviving owner.

If you want sole control of your bank or brokerage account, you can make it a pay-on-death (usually for a bank) or transfer-on-death (typically a brokerage) account. You'll maintain sole ownership until your death, when it then passes on to the person you named as your beneficiary.

If you have life insurance, a pension and/or an individual retirement account or 401(k), you can name a beneficiary to receive the funds after your death — no probate court required.

Powers of attorney and living wills

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Another big component to estate planning is powers of attorney and health-care directives.

In most states, you'll be able to find a standardized, fill-in-the-blank form for a medical power of attorney, Parrish said. Some states will have the form for financial power of attorney, and most also have living wills or advanced directives.

Just do an online search for the local bar association or your state's website, such as New Jersey's, to get the form.

The forms generally won't cost you, but you'll have to pay to have them notarized. Notary fees vary by state, from free to $25.

"Some people still may need or want to go to an attorney, but going to an attorney is much like any other consumer decisions, it doesn't mean you have to spend thousands," Parrish said.

"You can do online searches like you would for any other kind of service."

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