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Since You Asked: Where there's a will there's a way

I purchased a form for a will from a stationery store. I filled it out and got signatures from two people who witnessed it. Will this document be binding in a court of law? If not, why would they lawfully be able to sell these forms?

— Lillian C., Medford

Jason Broesder, a Medford elder law attorney who does estate planning, said these forms can work for people who have a straight-forward plan for distributing their estate.

However, Oregon law requires that the two witnesses also sign an affidavit attesting that the signatures on your will are really their signatures. Most attorneys use a "self-attesting" or self-proving will that has the witnesses sign an affidavit at the same time as they sign the will. Then authorities don't have to track them down after your death to prove that your will is valid. Because other states don't have that requirement, most preprinted forms don't have that affidavit. Tracking down witnesses, who might have moved or even died, can delay the execution of a will or even void it if they can't be found and someone contests your plan.

Broesder also cautions that many people's lives are more complicated than filling in the blanks. For example, equitably sharing assets the way you want in a blended family that includes children from previous relationships can be very difficult using the form, he said.

Broesder advises always having a lawyer look over any legal document.

"Any money you might save doing it yourself is far outweighed by the potential for litigation later," he said. "It's penny-wise and pound-foolish to go cheap on a will that will distribute an estate."

The publishers of will forms aren't governed by any sort of authority, Broesder said. They aren't actually preparing a will for someone else, so they aren't practicing law without a license — that would be illegal. A quick look at the horoscopes or the self-help section of any bookstore shows that people have a right to print all kinds of questionable advice.

When you complete the will form, you are representing yourself, something you have a right to do in court. Therefore, you have no legal protection if there is a problem with a document made from such a form. If a licensed attorney fails to meet standards, he or she can face sanctions and you have recourse, Broesder said.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.