A client of mine recently realized that he cost himself and his family a huge amount of money when he did his father's Will using an online DIY tool. He was not aware or didn't understand some of the ramifications of the answers that he provided to the tool. As a result, the end product did not reflect his father's wishes.
I am astounded how often I am asked what I think about using an online tool to prepare a Will or other estate planning documents. Really? My normal response is to ask whether or not the person would try DIY dentistry on themselves or a loved one. Why would you want to trust that an online questionnaire could gather enough information from you about your family and your financial assets to prepare documents that control how those assets are dispersed after you are dead and no longer able to clarify that that is not exactly what you intended? During the client interview, sometimes the most complex job an attorney has is sorting out the family structure and the financial picture of the client. Every family has relatives that you want to take care of and those that have issues you want nothing to do with even after you're gone. Figuring all that out by filling in a form on the computer is dicey at best. In terms of assets, particularly the distinction between probate and non-probate assets, we often have to go back to the client repeatedly to clarify the scope of the total estate picture. This is not a process that lends itself to an online evaluation in my opinion. What can specifically go wrong? How about the following.
False Sense of Security
One of the key advertising points that entities that offer online estate planning services make is the sense of security that creating an estate plan with them provides. This sense of security is enhanced by slick marketing that assures that the process will be cheap and quick through the use of testimonials to that effect and misleading endorsements. However, these platforms can not give legal advice, nor change a user's answers to correct a document. Moreover, a significant number of their users fill the forms out incorrectly. Slick marketing and packaging can not correct bad documents. So how secure would you feel if you weren't sure that your documents were either legally constructed or do what you want them to do?
Building on that last point, my review of these online estate planning sites reveals that none are likely to entirely meet all your needs, many can result in unintended results, and most are lacking the necessary flexibility to implement your wishes. And really, how could they not be? The process of estate planning involves a host of variables such as family dynamics, investment strategies, tax planning, and personal preferences. The online questionnaire would be hard-pressed to evaluate all those variables and come up with the proper resulting document set. And without proper feedback, how is the user to know that their wishes have been fully implemented and the results are as they intended? The answer is, they can't.
Too Simplistic to be Effective
The question and answer methodology used on most online estate planning sites isn't intuitive enough to address more than the most simplistic scenario. Thus, it can create conflicting estate planning approaches that either nullify or contradict each other. This is particularly so if your plan involves any type of trust instrument and a pour-over will. These two documents have to work together and with an online interview, the possibility that they end up conflicting is not uncommon. Moreover, this process many times fails to interpret the risk associated with what you are trying to protect. Your choices as to how you develop your estate plan are linked to the risk you are willing to take to protect or manage those assets.
Cost Comparison is Not Equal
Comparing results while looking at costs is not an apples-to-apples comparison. An online estate planning site is not a law firm, can't give legal advice, can't modify the user's answers, and can't customize the resulting document based on the user's unique set of facts. Therefore, their claim to save up to 85% of the costs of an attorney is misleading because the resulting products and services used to create them are not equal.
Little More Than Dying Without a Plan
The most typical scenario, and the one for which these sites might be a reasonable option, is one that does little more than codify existing laws of intestacy. A married couple with grown children, who own their home jointly, and have all their financial investments set up with specified beneficiaries are probably the ideal client from the online planning site's perspective. But if this couple did nothing, the laws of intestacy (what happens when you die without a will) would have the property going to the surviving spouse, and then to their children and heirs after the second spouse dies, with all of the investments going to the stated beneficiaries. A Will produced by one of these sites would have to say the same thing and therefore would be redundant. And if it didn't, problems would ensue so what's the point?
What is the bottom line? The cost and effort to retain a licensed attorney in your area to assist you in drafting an estate plan can be relatively modest. And when viewed in light of the costs of having to correct an improper or invalid estate plan after you are gone it can be downright inexpensive. So why risk it? Perhaps two million people a year are drafting wills using DIY techniques that could lead to untold errors and problems requiring more litigation and legal services rather than less. Don't be one of them. See an attorney.
When legal matters affect you and your family, speak with an attorney at The Tyra Law Firm, LLC. Our firm offers a number of legal services, including Estate Planning, Estate Administration, Guardianships, and Adoptions. Contact our Rockville, Maryland law office at (301) 315-0811.
Much of this article appeared in a post on this website on August 18, 2015. It was written by this author and is republished here with permission.