In the United States, the majority of individuals don't have any estate planning documents in place. Why is that?
For some, it is difficult and uncomfortable to confront their own mortality. For others, there is a perception that the estate planning process is expensive or only meant for people who are already “successful.” To address this phenomenon, there have been a wave of “budget” and “DIY” estate planning solutions cropping up: online forms, fill-in-the-blank forms, and follow-along books. These companies are marketing their Will-drafting methods as faster, cheaper, and just as good as working with an attorney. Unfortunately, the truth is not as easy as all that.
You Get What You Pay For
Do-it-yourself Will-drafting tools are designed to offer the most basic outline of a Will. Often, these forms employ the “fill-in-the-blank” method and use examples as a way to help you make decisions. However, the examples offered may not fit your situation, and they may lead you to making the closest choice, rather than the right one. As much as we may wish it to be true, drafting a Will is not a simple or one-size-fits-all process. In fact, over-simplifying the process can lead to some seriously damaging results. When things get left out or provisions are too vague or unclear, the decisions about what you meant are left to the probate court. Failure to plan or drafting a plan that is not legally enforceable doesn't mean you don't have a plan, it simply means that the state default rules will be applied to your unique family and finances.
You May Not Notice Mistakes Until It's Too Late
To err is human, but mistakes are certainly easier to make when using virtual tools with which we aren't familiar. Think about completing an online order or filling in a document on your computer or phone. How many times have you entered incorrect information, missed a line, or spent way too much time double checking your answers? When using online forms, it is incredibly common to make mistakes. Sometimes, the mistakes are a result of an imprecise or awkwardly-phrased question. Other times, an error can be as simple as skipping a line or making a typographical error. While this kind of mistake may be easy to correct when filing your tax returns or ordering a delivery online, it can have much longer lasting impacts on your Will. Without a professional to review your documents, a Will can easily create an unintended result or become entirely unenforceable as a result of typographical errors or a simple misunderstanding. For example, typing the wrong name in a box could result in leaving certain assets to the wrong family member or naming the wrong person as executor of your estate.
The worst part about this kind of mistake is the likelihood that it won't be caught. Unlike filing your taxes online or buying plane tickets through an online retailer, there is no next step after completing a DIY Will. You simply print the document, execute it, and then leave it to the side for some day in the future. Sure, this seems like a great way to check that pesky Will off of the To Do list, but it may not be as effective as you think it is. If there is a mistake on your DIY documents, no one will know about it until after you pass, when the Will is entered with the Court. Only then will it become clear that a mistake has been made, and then, after you've passed, you won't be able to explain what you meant.
So Much of Your Life Isn't Included in Probate
There is a lot more to your estate than just the assets that are included in probate. DIY Wills don't provide guidance or take into account the significant portion of your estate that is not covered by your “simple Will.” Bank accounts, retirement accounts, bonds, and life insurance payouts can pass to beneficiaries outside of probate. Even if you mistakenly list these assets in your Will, the beneficiary forms associated with each asset can control. An attorney can help you locate all nonprobate assets, review their beneficiary designations, and update them to ensure your wishes are served.
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. However, it really may be the same. Without any estate planning documents, your estate will transfer to your heirs in accordance with the state laws of intestacy. A DIY Will that contains mistakes, missing information, or vague provisions will also likely default to the state laws.
Many of the online Will-drafting tools that I've seen claim that making a DIY Will gives you “peace of mind.” Because I've seen these situations go so wrong, I can't help but feel that this sense of security is misplaced. DIY legal 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. Doesn't that worry you? These are legal documents we are talking about! “Peace of mind” doesn't mean anything if you aren't actually having your problem solved.
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.
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 protected, start by calling our Maryland office in at 301-315-0811 to schedule an appointment.