Frequently, we see television ads and hear talk of online “will kits” or software to produce estate planning documents. These kits are popular because they’re cheap. However, you risk subjecting your survivors to a bundle in legal fees to fix what are often useless documents.
Companies like LegalZoom offer all kinds of documents, from creating a will to incorporating an LLC. Nowhere do their ads mention the clauses and provisions that you should know about and the states in which you might need them.
You might be thinking that you “just don’t want to spend a lot of money” on an estate plan; and you are looking to download fill-in-the-blank documents.
That would be a significantly poor decision.
Do-it-yourself plans repeatedly fail when they’re challenged in court. Laws regarding estate plans vary from state to state. A non-attorney will find it incredibly challenging to properly execute a do-it-yourself will. Defective forms with violations of state law are not apparent to most people when their documents are signed.
These programs cannot perform a detailed legal analysis of a user’s true estate planning needs. They also don’t address crucial planning issues, such as if a child has problems with debt, is anticipating a divorce or has special needs.
As a certified Legal Specialist in the field of Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law I have detailed discussions with my clients about their financial situation, goals, and family relationships. (Most reputable attorneys do not sell “cookie-cutter” planning documents.) I customize estate plans to meet each client’s unique goals and needs.
Here’s a brief list of “why nots” to help educate you on the risks associated with Will and Trust kits:
1. State Probate Laws Vary
Most estate planning kits don’t address variations in state law. Since there is no national probate code, a computer program or website cannot hope to replicate the knowledge of a qualified estate planning attorney who knows the intricacies of state law. What might be permitted in one state – preparing an attachment to a will without a redrafting of the entire document – might not be allowed in others.
2. Undesired Results
Using a DIY will or other estate planning kits may have undesired consequences. As mentioned earlier, violations of state law are not readily apparent and may only be revealed after a death, when it’s too late to revise documents. Survivors may find that a will devised from a kit doesn’t accomplish what the deceased wanted, and the local courts won’t allow changes.
3. Blended Families Bring Complexities
Many clients have been married more than once or they’ve had more than one relationship that produced children or stepchildren. When parents draft DIY documents leaving an estate to their “children,” legal chaos can ensue. It often takes a court to sort out what a parent wanted to accomplish. Did he want to leave his property to his entire, extended family (stepchildren included) or merely to his biological children?
4. Special Rules for Special Needs Children
An entire category of trusts works within the complex rules and restrictions of government-managed disability benefits. Once again, DIY estate planning plans don’t account for these special rules. An improper distribution from a parent’s do-it-yourself estate plan could result in his child losing disability benefits, health insurance, educational benefits, or an assisted living arrangement. It also can mean the disappearance of the child’s inheritance due to mismanagement or someone taking advantage of the child.
Avoid the Trap
A reputable estate planning attorney can save you from the trap of a DIY estate plan. Will and trust kits can seem like a great bargain, but the eventual cost for your family could be quite high. The adage really is true – you get what you pay for.
A basic estate plan prepared by an attorney doesn’t have to cost much – and the investment is priceless.