DIY Wills: You Get What You Pay For
The majority of individuals in the United States do not have a will or any other estate planning document in place. Often, this is because it can be difficult and painful to confront mortality, the process can be expensive, and people tend to put it off for a time in the future when it feels more urgent. In response to this phenomenon, there are many “simple” and “low-cost” solutions to estate planning available such as online legal form services, DIY books, and fill-in-the-blank forms. These companies try to sell their will-drafting methods as simpler, faster, and cheaper than working with an attorney. What does this mean in practical terms? You get what you pay for.
What Can Go Wrong with an Online Will-Drafting Tool?
Online drafting and other DIY tools are designed to provide the most general outline of a will. They often have fill-in-the-blanks and examples that may not fit your situation. Over-simplifying your will can lead to undesirable results. Things get left out, and provisions that are too vague will end up being interpreted by the probate court. Your family, finances, and wishes are unique. One-size-fits-all may lead to an estate plan that won’t quite fit you.
When using an online form, it is incredibly common to make mistakes. Sometimes, this is because the questions aren’t precise or don’t match your situation; other times, you simply make an error, and a will can quickly create an unintended result or become entirely unenforceable. Without a professional to review your documents, you may end up with typographical errors determining the distribution of your estate. For example, typing the wrong name in a box could result in leaving assets to the wrong family member or naming the wrong person as executor of your estate. Failing to list some assets (long forgotten stocks, for example) can result in substantial financial gifts being left to the wrong person. Even without typographical errors, a DIY will may end up creating the same result as if you have no will at all. If a will is found not legally enforceable, the probate court will default to the state laws of intestacy.
DIY wills fail to take into account the significant portion of your estate that does not pass through probate. Bank accounts, retirement accounts, bonds, and life insurance payouts can pass to beneficiaries outside of probate. The beneficiary forms associated with each asset can control. Without an attorney, you may not realize that these forms are out of date or can no longer reflect the intended beneficiary.
Every state is different, and it is essential that your will meet the requirements in your state. In a general document created online, wording for some provisions may end up not being legally enforceable if they don’t conform with the state’s laws. There are also specific rules regarding provisions a will must have. With so much variation state-to-state, online will-drafting tools often aren’t clear on what you need to do or are operating using outdated law.
It’s important to remember, when it comes time for your will to go into effect, you won’t be able to explain what you meant. That’s why it’s so important that your estate planning documents be carefully tailored to meet your needs and create the exact results you desire for your family, friends, and heirs.
Isn’t Drafting a DIY Will Better Than Having No Will at All?
It’s often said that having a DIY will is better than not having one at all. Without a will, your estate will pass to your heirs in accordance with state law. However, if you mess up your DIY will in a way that makes it not legally enforceable, your estate will also be distributed under the state laws of intestacy.
Online tools will tell you, and claim in testimonials, that creating an online will gives you “peace of mind.” However, the sense of security that comes with getting something in writing may be misplaced. These DIY tools often come with a disclaimer telling you that the information and forms provided are not legal advice and should not be taken to mean that the documents created are legally enforceable. That’s because, in point of fact, it’s illegal for these services to provide legal advice. All information they provide must be general and based on what “most” people do so that they do not engage in the unauthorized practice of law. As an individual with specific needs, this should be concerning.
You spend your life accumulating the wealth and property that you will pass on to your heirs. Why would you compromise all of that hard work to save some money now? If there is something wrong with your DIY will, you will never know. Your will won’t go into effect until after you have passed, and the responsibility and expense to deal with any legal issues related to your will falls to your heirs. There is no substitute for hiring an experienced attorney to draft and review your will. Without having an attorney look carefully at your financial situation and examine the will you drafted, you will have no way of knowing whether you can rest at ease knowing your affairs are in order.
How Do I Find an Attorney that I Can Trust?
Unlike many attorneys, we don’t believe that it is possible to quote a flat-rate price for a will over the phone without learning details about your assets, debts, family structure, etc. Your situation is unique and complex and requires a carefully tailored document. A fill-in-the-blank document will not be sufficient to protect your assets and your loved ones, and it can even create more problems than it solves. Estate planning is also not limited to a will. Your family structure and financial situation may warrant other estate planning documents and methods to best provide for your loved ones.
All of this is not to say you shouldn’t shop around to find a reasonably priced and trustworthy attorney to prepare your estate plan. When choosing an attorney, cost-efficiency is important. However, experience, thoroughness, and attention to detail are also essential. In the end, hiring an experienced attorney will be worth paying the extra money to make sure that your estate plan is drafted correctly and includes all assets as a part of your estate, even those that won’t pass through probate.
Don’t view a will as a commodity or something to purchase for a bargain. Instead, think of it as an investment in the future security of your family. You won’t be around to suffer the consequences of a failed estate plan, but your loved ones will be.
If you are ready to safeguard your assets and make sure your family is well taken care of in the event you are no longer here, start by calling our office in Leesburg, Virginia at (703) 771-9740 to schedule an appointment.