A will is one of the most important financial planning documents, especially as you move toward retirement. Yet according to the AARP article, Haven’t Done a Will Yet?, only 4 in 10 American adults have a will or living trust.
It seems silly to spend the time and money to consult with an attorney when you can download a form right off the Internet, right? Wrong! The DIY online forms do not always say what you think they say and boilerplate forms cannot tailor a comprehensive plan to your specific needs.
So what is so wrong with DIY online wills? There are just so many things that can go wrong–from misunderstanding the wording of the document, to failing to meet the required formalities of notarization and signatures. They may seem like small mistakes, but they MUST be met before your will is considered valid. Are you confident that you won’t miss anything?
There are many more, but here are the top three reasons to stay far far away from DIY estate planning docs:
Most DIY websites presume that you already know how you want to dispose of your assets after you die. But the reality is that many people have no idea what they want or need. Once you get into complex issues like blended families or business ownership, DIY estate planning can cause more challenges than working with an estate planning attorney.
Although it can be more comforting to fill in the blanks of a form at home than to discuss your doubts and fears with a stranger, sometimes it helps—a lot—to get professional advice. For people with complicated personal and financial lives, a DIY service will not be able to fully address your entire situation.
And what if you have questions? Some DIY estate-planning sites have attorneys on staff, but access to specific help for your personal documents is rarely available. If personal advice is offered, it will likely cost a great deal more to receive. And what if you don’t know which questions to ask? The site could offer both will and trust documents, but do you know which one is the better option for your goals?
While it can be argued that a DIY will is better than no will at all, estate planning attorneys are trained to personalize their service to your unique situation and wishes. You may need to preserve assets for long-term medical care, or protect your home from creditors, from a lawsuit, or a divorce. You may need a trust for your minor or disabled child. These are some examples of why an attorney trained in this area of law can give you what an online form cannot. You spend your life working hard for what you have, isn’t the investment in a personalized will worth it to protect your legacy?
DIY estate planning services offer a range of prices — like $80 for just a will to several hundreds of dollars for what is described as a “complete plan.” Some offer limited attorney consultations but this service is often just a menu of FAQs with pre-written responses from attorneys. In the rare case that a live attorney is available to speak with you, it is only after you purchase those services for a much higher price. You also have no way of verifying that the person you are speaking with is actually an attorney, or that they are licensed to practice law in Florida. This can be a slippery slope of misinformation.
Furthermore, the money you save now on a DIY form could end up costing your estate and/or your heirs money later if the will is contested or found to be invalid because it wasn’t written with enough clarity to withstand scrutiny. When there are mistakes or omissions in a will, it is possible that the survivors of the deceased will end up in court, spending thousands of dollars to contest a will. Even if no one contests the will, courts still have to follow the letter of the law. Many courts will not validate provisions if the will was not properly executed (remember the formalities I spoke of above?) Courts will also hesitate to enforce provisions that are too vague or confusing. Even uncontested wills can remain in expensive probate limbo.
The power to express our wishes is what good estate planning is all about. Well drafted and thorough documents which provide detailed instructions are critical to avoid court involvement, to reduce administrative confusion and to know when the executor’s job is done. Don’t cost your decedents exorbitant time and money later just to save few dollars today.
The four basic estate planning documents: a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive. If you plan to use any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. It is important to keep in mind that each state has its own probate laws and these one-size-fits-all documents may not take your state’s unique laws into consideration.
The boilerplate documents that DIY sites provide can lead to expensive and unpleasant estate planning mistakes. For example, a Flagler County man accidentally left the form blank where instructions for the DIY will said “[Insert name here]” and wound up leaving $200,000 to “[Insert name here]” instead of to a loved one. In a different case out of Palatka, a woman specified that she wanted to leave “$200.000 to my sister” –mistakenly placing a decimal point where she intended a comma. As you can imagine, the typo became a point of contention in the probate proceedings. Probating your estate—and distributing assets to your heirs—could end up taking months or years longer if the will wasn’t executed properly or otherwise has problems that must be resolved by the probate court.
The DIY estate planning websites can be a bit of a minefield to navigate through. I recently found one website (littered with typos) that offered three different estate planning “packages.” However, these packages were merely the same document labeled with three different names. To add insult to injury, these packages were missing key execution instructions that very few users would know to follow. Essentially, the website was charging users a fee to create invalid estate planning documents.
If you prepare your taxes yourself and they end up incorrect, you and the IRS may end up figuring out a solution. If you decide to do your estate planning by yourself, however, you may never know the results of your mistake, but your loved ones certainly will.
However you choose to complete your estate plan, DIY or with the help of an experienced attorney, please get your estate plan done, and soon. Many people think that they do not need a will because they do not have enough money to leave to anyone. This is simply not true.
If you have a house, a bank account, a pet, a car, or anything at all, the State will decide who gets your things if you do not have a will. Take control of your legacy and let the knowledgeable and compassionate staff at Eldredge and Davis help you demystify the issues surrounding estate planning and ensure that your end-of-life wishes are heard and honored.
Whether its minimizing tax obligations, protecting sentimental property, or ensuring that your children are taken care of in the future, the experienced estate planning attorneys at Eldredge & Davis can help you find the right fit for your unique circumstances. Call our offices today for a free consultation.