The ready availability and intense marketing of online services that create a Last Will and Testament, Trust, and other legal documents may make it tempting to bypass talking face-to-face with a lawyer and create your own estate plan. Unfortunately, if you choose the do-it-yourself / DIY route, you take significant risks — and you may not save money at all in the long run.
Many things can go wrong if you try to create your own Will or estate plan. Often, it won’t even be apparent that something went awry until it’s too late to fix it. The discussion that follows explains three significant risks that accompany using DIY legal forms for an estate plan.
Every estate plan is as unique as the person who creates it. A Will serves different purposes in individual estates. So does a Trust. There also are many different kinds of trusts. Each trust operates according to the terms in the specific document that creates it. Only a knowledgeable estate planning attorney can analyze your individual circumstances and determine what you need to accomplish in your estate plan and what specific documents belong in your plan.
Complex state laws govern everything about estates, from requirements for legal documents like a Will or power of attorney, to interpretation of the terms in Wills and trusts, and distribution of an estate after someone passes away. If you don’t know those laws or understand how they apply to the documents you create, you can’t be sure that your documents accomplish your goals and address all your and your family’s needs now and in the future.
When you consult with an estate planning attorney, your attorney’s responsibilities include making certain that your estate plan takes state laws into account and accomplishes exactly what you want and need it to achieve.
When you talk with an experienced estate planning attorney, your attorney gathers detailed information from you about your financial and other assets. Your lawyer also talks with you at length about your personal and financial goals and needs, as well as those of your family, now and in the future. Your lawyer asks follow up questions based on the information you provide, to ensure that your estate plan fully reflects your circumstances and your family. Then, your attorney creates documents that specifically address your individual situation, taking applicable laws into account.
If you decide to skip an in-person discussion with a lawyer and choose to make your own estate documents, you may very well not accomplish all your goals or address all necessary concerns. You may not choose the right or best documents to achieve your goals. Errors, omissions, and inaccurate or incomplete information are common mistakes in DIY legal documents, which may change the meaning of your documents.
An important objective of estate planning is to give you the peace of mind that you have taken care of your family in the future. How can you have that peace of mind if you don’t really know whether your estate plan actually accomplishes what you think it does?
If all that doesn’t convince you to talk in person with a lawyer about your estate plan, read the disclaimers that online services use. The hard-to-find disclaimers on the site may include the following statements:
Clearly, these sites are not a substitute for consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney who will provide you with an opinion, advice, and guidance about creating an estate plan that fits your unique needs and goals. Moreover, your discussions with your estate planning attorney are always protected by the attorney-client privilege.
Even a small misstep in a legal document can render the document partially or wholly invalid under Michigan law. Laws may also cause your documents to be interpreted differently than you intended.
If your Will is declared partly or entirely invalid — or if your estate plan is incomplete — state law may determine who gets your estate under the statute governing intestate succession. In that case, the individuals who end up benefitting from your legacy might be people you really did not want to inherit from you. Equally problematic is the fact that your loved ones who should benefit from your estate may end up with nothing at all.
In a situation where estate documents create uncertainties or questions, including about validity of the documents, family disagreements could very likely arise. Ultimately, the only way to resolve the problems conclusively is for one of the family members to file a lawsuit in court.
Contested Wills and estates lead to time-consuming and expensive probate litigation. Court costs and attorney’s fees can deplete or even fully exhaust estate assets. However, the negative effect does not stop there. Court actions that pit one family member against another often destroy or substantially impair previously close lifelong relationships.
Using a DIY service to create your estate plan may give rise to uncertainties and questions after your death. The potential for family disputes, legal problems, and court involvement is real.
Many things can and sometimes do go wrong if a person takes the DIY route for a Will or estate plan. The small amount of money saved doesn’t begin to make up for the eventual cost and potential outcomes. Doing something yourself is a laudable approach for many endeavors. But in estate planning, the results of the DIY approach can be devastating and irreversible.
If you’re considering using an online service to make your estate plan, talk with a local estate planning attorney before you make a final decision. If you already made an estate plan using an online service or forms, at the very least, you should review your documents with a local estate planning attorney.
In my practice at Ager Law Office, I help individuals and families with all aspects of estate planning. From my Ann Arbor office, I serve clients throughout Washtenaw County. To talk with me about a new estate plan or about updating your existing plan, call (734) 649-0784, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or use the online contact form.