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SAN FRANCISCO (03/08/2004) - Benjamin Franklin pointed out that nothing is certain but death and taxes. And it's hard to dispute Scarlett O'Hara's addendum: It's never a convenient time for either of them.

All U.S. citizens and residents deal with taxes this time of year, and our "Guide to Desktop Tax Software" and "Guide to Web-Based Tax Software" can help you deal with that chore.

While we're on difficult topics, let's look at some software that can help you prepare for the other uncomfortable inevitability. Death comes for us all, but making provisions for it can ease our minds and make our lives more peaceful.

An Estate of Well-Being

The will-writing process most of us are familiar with goes something like this: Spend anxious appointment--or series of appointments--with lawyer; have lawyer draw up will; pay lawyer several hundred dollars. But legal software maker Nolo suggests this course of action: Download the US$50 Quicken Inc. WillMaker Plus 2004; spend as long as you need reading up on your options; answer its tactful questions; print out will. (The signing, witnessing, and so forth are the same with either method.)

"Honey, I'm going to write my will tonight" doesn't sound like a laugh riot, and it's not--but it's not like a tax audit, either. WillMaker Plus asks you frank, friendly questions about yourself and your situation. The pleasant tone makes it seem more like being interviewed by a personable lawyer than filling out a spreadsheet.

Once you've answered a few questions, WillMaker Plus presents you with a list of documents it recommends you draw up. You can complete the documents fairly quickly, or you can spend a great deal of time exploring all the clearly written definitions and explanations in the included Quicken WillMaker Legal Manual. Web updates can help you keep your will up-to-date with state laws. Some folks will need advice from a legal professional, but WillMaker Plus suffices for many of us. I spent less than an hour on my (admittedly simple) will, and I felt reassured.

WillMaker Plus can create a variety of potentially related, but not required, documents such as pet-care agreements, promissory notes, durable powers of attorney, and dozens of others. I found the living will thorough, and the accompanying explanations of laws and terms helpful. The notice of interment wishes is well-explained and easy to fill out; it overlaps only slightly with the more complete service-planning details provided by this month's next download, Digital Funeral Planner.

Leaving Sweet Memories

All too often, funerals are planned by the bereaved in a time of great stress. It's hard to decide on even the best music for your beloved; when you start figuring in flowers and readings and family feelings, you can get overwhelmed. WakefieldSoft's Digital Funeral Planner guides you through the process, touching on everything from memorial gifts and headstones to veteran information and organ donation. Screens for family input and memories of the deceased help you put together a personal and meaningful service.

If you have thoughts about your own service--or if you simply prefer not to burden your family with the planning--you can use Digital Funeral Planner to make your wishes known. You can store estate information, instructions on where to find keys and papers, and messages to your family. The program can hold a number of records, so you can store the wishes of your spouse and your parents as well. If you install the optional PDA component, you can fill out the forms on your Palm- or Windows Mobile-based handheld.

This demo version of Digital Funeral Planner produces only one record, which can't be printed out. After thirty days, the demo version expires if it's not upgraded to the $30 full version.

And What About Your Data?

Some of us live most of our lives online. If your life ended, how would your online friends know? How would your work get passed on? What if you don't want your MP3 collection to betray a secret soft spot for Ricky Martin? These questions--minus the Ricky Martin issue--inspired DaisyMan (nom de Net for a programmer at the Ars Technica PC enthusiast community) to create the free Dead Man's Switch.

If you don't reset the program's countdown in the period of time you specify, Dead Man's Switch carries out your orders. You can set it to e-mail last notes to loved ones or passwords to coworkers. Web page postings can alert others of your, er, change of status. The program can also delete or encrypt files, making sure that no one sees anything you don't want them to remember you by.

You can reset the trigger period for Dead Man's Switch, and it's a good idea to do so before taking an extended break. It would be a shame for Dead Man's Switch to send your friends into mourning while you're on vacation in the Caribbean, enjoying a little yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

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