These days you can get practically anything online, and that includes do-it-yourself wills and other estate planning documents. These services (and there are thousands of them) promise to let you create legally sound estate planning documents at a fraction of the cost of having them prepared by an attorney. But unless you know what you really need – and most people don’t – you might indeed save a little money but it’s your family who will one day pay the price.
Do-It-Yourself Wills Often Create Estate Planning Traps
We first encountered this insightful article on the NextAvenue website. It’s titled “The Problems with Do-It-Yourself Online Wills,” and the author, Marguerite Lorenz, is an estate-planning pro who has served as a trustee and professional executor on over 100 legal cases. The danger, she warns, is simple: “These documents could save money, but can lay estate planning traps.” Lorenz says, “As a professional trustee and executor, I have seen hundreds of estate-planning documents, including some from do-it-yourself online services. I appreciate that using a DIY site to draft a will can save money and time. But I’m also concerned that sometimes doing it this way could lead to expensive and unpleasant estate planning mistakes.”
One might expect a legal professional to take issue with people going to inexpensive websites and filling in the blanks to create their legal documents. But the fact is, if you plan poorly, your desire to save money up front could very likely cost your estate later, and involve far more in legal fees that you would have spent if you had done your planning properly in the first place. That’s because, as Lorenz says, your estate planning documents are designed to serve as a guide after your death.
“Our power to express our preferences is what good estate planning (or life planning), is all about,” she writes in the NextAvenue article. “In my work as a trustee and executor, I’ve learned that the documents which provide me with detailed instructions are critical to avoid court involvement, to reduce administrative confusion and to know when our job is done.” Poorly drafted and incomplete documents create more problems than they solve.
Do-It-Yourself Wills: Some are Unprofessional, Incomplete
There are several issues that raise concerns in the mind of legal professionals when it comes to online estate planning services. Marguerite Lorenz cites a few.
- Some sites are sloppy and unprofessional. “I recently saw one DIY estate-planning service that had typos on its site, and its estate-planning ‘packages’ had the same document labeled with three different names.”
- Some “packages” are incomplete. “The packages I looked at [on one site] were missing a key estate planning document which very few users would know to ask about.”
- Some claim to offer the personalized advice of an attorney but require extra cost to access it. While there may be attorneys on staff, “access to specific help for your personal documents is rarely available. If personal advice is offered, it then appears to cost a great deal more to receive.”
- The majority of services leave you with unanswered questions. “Most [sites] presume that you already know what you want. But the reality is that many people have no idea what they want or need. Once you get into the complexities of family dynamics and perhaps trust language specific to your state and situation, DIY estate planning can cause more challenges than working with a team of professionals.”
Do-It-Yourself Wills Don’t Always Do What You Think They’ll Do
The AARP addressed this issue in this article from clear back in 2011. “There’s nothing wrong with saving a few bucks by drafting your own estate-planning documents,” said AARP. But if you do, the group warns, make certain you have a legal professional review the final documents to be sure everything is in order. One Massachusetts elder law attorney told AARP, “Ninety percent of the online estate-planning documents I see don’t do what the people think they’re going to do. I’ve seen people use online documents, documents out of estate-planning books or documents borrowed from friends. But they screw up their estate plan because they don’t understand the legal and technical aspects of the documents.”
As the NextAvenue article points out, there’s an added irony in this picture. “With the ease and availability of these [DIY] programs, and their low price, you might think more of us would have an up-to-date estate plan,” writes Lorenz. But the fact is, according to AARP, 60 percent of American adults still do not have a will.
Do-It-Yourself Wills: Exercise Caution and Get the Right Legal Advice
What’s the bottom line on do-it-yourself estate planning? Be cautious and get some good advice. “The four basic estate planning documents [are] a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive,” says Lorenz. “If you plan to use any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. Keep in mind that each state has its own probate code (the body of law governing estate planning and implementation). The software package you use may have different names for the same documents I have listed above.”
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That same do-it-yourself mentality people bring to preparing their legal documents also applies to planning for your future. When it comes to retirement planning, most people focus on one fairly narrow issue: money. Financial planning is an important component of retirement planning. But people heading towards retirement often make the mistake of thinking that a little financial planning is all that’s required, when in fact most financial plans are woefully inadequate.
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)