Creating Your Own Will

Just fill in the blanks

Three things that make you feel old: Falling asleep halfway through Criminal Minds on a Friday night, having to shop for life insurance quotes and creating a will. The first two are easy. The last one is hard. At least I thought it was. The legal profession has a knack for sometimes obscuring the simplest tasks. Nolo’s books and software, while not a replacement for a lawyer or professional (they take pains to say that themselves), do make many situations much clearer and easier to understand.

Given that I’m climbing the ladder towards 40 and have a small child dependent on me providing fresh Mac N Cheese and sparkly clothes, I figured it was time to make some arrangements. You know, just in case. Fate never liked a betting man. So I did what anyone of my generation would do. I googled it. Turns out even the simplest will would cost anywhere from two thousand (an actual lawyer) to at least a couple hundred (an online will mill). Turns out there was a third alternative: Nolo and the public library.

Think of Nolo’s Simple Will Book and Software as sort of like TurboTax for wills.

“Over 40% of Americans over age 45 do not have a will. Presidents Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and US Grant died without wills.”

Chapter One: Making Your Own Will
An introduction to the book, as well as the what you can and cannot do with a will. It also discusses the situations that go beyond the scope of the book, where you may need a lawyer. Finally it walks through a typical standard will and explains each section.

Chapter Two: An Overview of Wills
This chapter goes through the the process of making a will and includes discussion on: How to Make a Valid Will, Types of Wills, Explanatory Letters and What Happens to Your Property After You Die (sequence of events).

Chapter Three: Special Property Rules for Married People
Did you know your spouse may already own a part of that restored Mustang or that mint Ken Griffey Jr. Donruss Rated Rookie (blech, she can have it)? This chapter talks about the impact of marriage on property law. Found it rather interesting reading to be honest. It looks at same sex laws, common misconceptions about common law marriages, community property, and common law states.

Chapter Four: Taking Inventory of Your Property
If creating a will for you means deciding who gets what. This chapter is about the what. The main point is to be clear about what property you own. The CD included with the book includes a property worksheet to help you organize what you have (this isn’t a legal document, just an aid to get you moving). Along with a description of the property, the worksheet includes columns for: ownership, percentage owned, and estimate of net value. There is also a section on the type of property you can and can’t leave.

Chapter Five: Your Beneficiaries

Since '71 Nolo has worked to demystify the legal system

This is the who part of the will equation. For many people, myself included, the beneficiaries are pretty clear, but the book includes sections and examples where the beneficiaries aren’t so clear. This book is about simple wills, so most of this chapter talks about what you can’t accomplish with the book (just as important as what you can do). After talking about who you can leave it to, this chapter also talks about how including gifts, organizations, minors, pets, alternate beneficiaries and a host of other situations.

“Heinrich Heine left his property to his wife with the condition that she remarry so there would be one man to mourn his death.”

Chapter Six: Choosing Your Executor
It’s not enough to have a will, you need an executor, a person to oversee the probate process and make sure the property in the will gets distributed as you desire. This chapter goes through the expected duties of the executor, factors to consider in choosing one and specific state requirements.

Chapter Seven: Children
Having minor children was the primary impetus for me to get my act together and create a will (same with additional life insurance). This chapter is divided into two sections: providing personal care (who will raise the minor) and providing financial care (providing financial support). The bulk of this chapter talks about Uniform Transfer to Minors Act and creating a trust or family pot for children.

Chapter Eight: Debts & Taxes
You’re not quite done with bills and taxes just because your dead. Typically this isn’t a big deal and if you’re doing your own will, I’m guessing you can breeze through this chapter. If you read it, you’ll find a discussion on debt responsibility after you die and how to choose specific assets to pay debts along with everyone’s favorite estate taxes.

Chapter Nine: Choosing the Right Form
Till this point the book has been background information on the process and gathering the necessary information. Chapter nine moves into the actual preparation by discussing the available will forms. Nolo offers seven basic will forms along with an extensive selection of clauses to pick and choose from to make a customized will.

I chose form 1: will for a married person leaving all or bulk of property to a spouse with the children as equal alternate beneficiaries. With this type of will, each spouse needs to prepare his own will.

Fancy pen not required

Chapter Ten: Using the Fill-in-the-Blank Wills
This is essentially the user manual for the will templates provided on the CD-ROM.

If you have the most recent version of Microsoft Word 2007, you’ll need to convert the Word files provided on the CD (I’m using Nolo’s 7th Edition from 2007) to a Rich Text Format to open it. I was also able to open the forms with OpenOffice with little trouble.

The template forms themselves do a good job of leading you through the choices, but if you run into trouble, the book walks through the specifics of each clause and how to handle any special situations. Any tricky situations were usually covered in more detail in a prior chapter. There is also a sample will included that can also serve as a guide.

Chapter Eleven: Making a Customized Will
Given that I used the fill-in-the-blank version in chapter ten, I skipped this chapter, but it appears to walk you through the various clauses you can cherry pick to make up your own, non-boiler plate will.

Chapter Twelve: Making it Legal
This chapter walks through signing, witnessing and use of a notary public to make things all nice and legal.

Chapter Thirteen: Changing or Revoking Your Will
Skipped this one. Guess I’ll check the book out again if I need to.

Chapter Fourteen: Estate Planning
While making a will is the first step, there is a lot more to estate planning. At least a whole chapter’s worth on probate, estate taxes, property, and “final arrangements.”

Chapter Fifteen: Working with a Lawyer
The last chapter talks about working with a lawyer or seeking advice online.

The rest of the book is a glossary and tear out worksheets and wills if you don’t want to use the CD ROM versions.

For or a younger person with a straight forward financial and beneficiary situation, this is a no brainer. I found this book really helpful and worth the time both for the money saved and the knowledge and insight gained into the will and probate process. I wouldn’t recommend it for people who were straying much beyond the fill-in-the-blank templates as it can get pretty complicated very quickly.

Notes on the ’86 Finals

Best Bird Celtics Team

We bought a treadmill earlier this year. Treadmills were one of the only reasons we paid for a gym membership. With the snow and general drudgery, it’s nearly impossible to run year round in New Englad. When the (admittedly) low rent gym we belonged to continued to let equipment wear out or remain broken, there seemed little incentive to renew. So we just bought our own. A pretty low rent, budget model itself, but we only plan to use it for these extreme winter months (which seem never ending this year). And we would actually fix it if it broke.

After the first session of jogging and staring at the side of our old yellow refrigerator, it became clear a better distraction was necessary to get through the hamster sessions. There was no cable in the basement, but we did have a DVD player and an old dorm television.

The rather stunning selection of sports DVDs at the library provided ample distraction and the whole point of this post (two long paragraphs later). Here are some random notes after watching a number of 1986 NBA Finals games.

Tommy Heinsohn
This one might not make sense to non-Celtics fans, but holy crap. Actual analysis. Balanced analysis. Intelligent and articulate comments. I can actually see how Tommy was a coach now. I much prefer this Tommy to the homer-ism and caricature he’s become now as the part time C’s color man.

Less graphics on screen at once for better or worse
Some clues in the broadcast lead me to believe that this one was more due to the feed they used for the DVDs than the actual production of the telecast. Still, at first, I found the clutter free screen refreshing, but I soon started to miss some of the information 21st century viewers are accustomed to seeing. Not the constant ticker across the bottom or big ESPN logo, but at the very least having the score visible along with the game and shot clocks.

Less time just dribbling
Not that the shot clock was all the necessary. There were only a handful of occasions were the shot clock ran down to single digits, never mind hit zero. While each team worked to get their players the ball in plum post spots, there seemed to be a lot less clear outs and dribble isolation. At times it felt like a college game with each point guard actually calling out plays each time up the floor.

Less threes
A lot, lot, lot less three pointers taken. Dick Stockton almost sounded shocked when someone had the audacity (usually Bird) to actually shoot one. I’m not sure the Rockets even took one. The rule was six seasons old by this point. I was surprised at the lack of outside shooting.

It's Fantastic

Less talking to the refs
This likely had to do with the number of available cameras because I’m sure there was woofing going on. DJ gets annoyed or frustrated a few times on camera, but it seemed more the exception than the rule today where every drive results in hand gestures and incredulous facial expressions if a whistle blows (or doesn’t blow).

More coordinated fast breaks
Again, this felt more like a college mentality with each guy filling a lane and a concentrated effort to push the ball off crisp outlet passes (this becomes more evident watching the Celtic/Lakers DVDs). Much more evident with the Rockets. The Celtics had little interest in fast breaking.

Less athletic
The game always look slower on television, but I’m pretty sure I’m not imagining this one. The hyper-tuned athlete we know today was a definite exception in the league in the mid-eighties. With Jordan’s emergence (this was the year he went for 63 against the Celts in the first round) this was probably the start of a transition period, but the game seemed more sedate and played much more below the rim. Maybe it was just the constricting shorts.

Can Your Reformat and Revise at the Same Time?

I am about a third of the way through the next set of revisions for Bottom of the World. I started this process right after finishing the Kindle formatting process for Shaking the Tree and I wondered if I couldn’t combine the two so that I was revising and reformatting the manuscript in the same pass. Was it possible? Would it save time? Check out my six lessons learned.

The short answer is no. I gave up after the first chapter. Revising and rewriting, at least the way I do it, need a flow. I like to read each scene out loud, then rewrite or revise, read again, hunt down typos and then make any necessary notes or continuity checks. Lather, rinse, repeat with the next chapter. Reformatting and layout threw a wrench in there. The whole process engages the old systems analyst side of my brain and just clogs up the creative narrative engine. So I chucked the idea. Mostly. Given the Kindle requirements I learned and the tips laid out in the Smashwords style guide, there are a number of things you can do while you’re in the manuscript to streamline the epub process later.

  1. Use Microsoft Word – While it does not throw out great HTML code for the Kindle, the .doc extension does play best with the Smashwords engine. With a few simple tweaks and a little arm twisting you can get Word to heel and behave.
  2. Use a clean template – It’s hard to get Word to stop sticking its nose into your document. Most of the time you won’t notice what it’s doing till you try to output it and you find Word has been messing with things under the hood. The best thing you can do is try to manage these tendencies.  Use a blank, fresh document. Use one font (see #3). Use two styles: normal for all text and heading 1 for chapter titles. Use only bold and italics. That’s it. Don’t touch anything else. Don’t insert header or footers. Don’t use drop caps. Just keep it simple.
  3. Stick with one simple font – The truth is you have little control over how the text will be displayed in any given e-reader. Why worry about it. Stick with one of the tried and trued fonts (Times, Courier, serif, etc). It may not look pretty. It may be boring. But it won’t cause you headaches later.
  4. Forget pages – This one was surprisingly hard for me. I liked to write in page preview mode. Watching the pages pile up in my rearview gave me some sense of accomplishment and kept the writing momentum going. Switching to Web Layout felt awkward, but if you’re joining the brave world of self-epub, then it’s best to get completely out of legacy page mode.
  5. Pull the tab key off your keyboard – Tabs are like termites, they worm their way into the wood of your manuscript and are a royal pain to get rid of later. When you set up your Normal style (see #2), set the left line indent to .5″ and let the style handle it. Resist the urge to hit the tab key for indents. This is actually the part you can do while you are revising/rewriting. Once you’ve completed a scene, before you move on, turn on Word’s Show/Hide function (CTRL + *) and look for any stray tabs.
  6. Be wary of carriage returns – While you are looking for stray tabs, cull any extra carriage returns you may have thrown into your manuscript to try to fudge spacing. Remember in this brave new world, layout is less a priority. Smashwords recommends not more than four consecutive carriage returns to be on the same side. Otherwise you may find certain e-readers throwing in blank pages. I insert a page break where necessary (personal preference), then 4 returns, then the next chapter (styled with headline 1).

Following those steps during the revision process will help any e-format conversion you undertake to go a lot smoother. It’s rarely seamless and each format carries some additional specific headaches (I’m looking at your NCX file) but these simple switches can cut down your turnaround time.

Blatant self-promotion: Don’t want to try formatting it yourself? I offer affordable conversion services at


Flickr CC attribution for photos used in this post: John Blyberg & Corsairstw

11 Popcorn Variations

I blame the microwave for our breakup. Before she waltzed into our kitchen and flaunted her buttons and quick reheat capabilities, popcorn and I were fine. More than fine. We had a little thing. A hot, crispy salty snack affair. She was the perfect accompaniment to a rainy Saturday afternoon with the Goonies or the Journey of Natty Gann on the VCR. When the microwave appeared, she changed. Started showing up in bags covered in chemical sliminess and tasting like packaging filler. We had a falling out and she soon faded from memory. As with bread baking, I can point Bittman for rekindling my love of popcorn. Real popcorn. No tri fold bags in sight. It’s good to have popcorn back in my life. Continue Reading

5 Tips for a Meat Free Month

We’ve been back on our regular diet for a month now, so it seems like a good time to look back on our little January family experiment of going meat and alcohol free for the first month of the new year.

To start, it wasn’t all that hard. After the excess of the holidays, a couple weeks of cleansing almost felt necessary. I wonder if it would be more difficult in July? The second half the month we had to fight some cravings and some meal ruts, but overall, it was success and brought some lasting changes to our diet. Continue Reading