Many people researching their options for getting an estate plan stumble across websites like LegalZoom and are tantalized by the thought of getting their will done in fifteen minutes for just $69. After all, lawyers are just glorified typists with student debt, and a $69 will provides the same “peace of mind” as a will written by an attorney—anyway, all you want is a simple will, not a leather-bound binder of legal documents. Right?
While the idea of saving money through DIY is sorely tempting—and may be appropriate for simple, low-risk tasks like refinishing a side table—the problems it can cause in the estate planning arena frequently outweigh the money you save by using inexpensive software. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains that DIYers often overlook seemingly small details that can end up being big, costly problems for their families later on.
A 2014 case from Florida provides a concrete example of DIY will forms wreaking havoc. In that case, the form didn’t contain a residuary clause (which covers assets not specifically addressed in the will), and after the will-maker’s death, relatives challenged the distribution of property not listed in the will. The case was ultimately litigated all the way up to the state’s supreme court, costing the family far more in legal fees than the decedent ever saved by using an “E-Z Legal Form.”
Anyone who’s entered a law library knows squabbles about word choice, omissions, or even the basic validity of a document can fill a multi-story building with heavy books. “You’re paying the lawyer for the expertise of knowing you’re not missing anything,” Elijah Kovar, a financial adviser, told the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t know what we don’t know.” While LegalZoom can provide a listicle of twelve things that might be wrong with the will you prepare with them, an attorney can help you make sure the mistakes aren’t made in the first place. And if your estate is modest to start with, it can be even more important to make sure your documents are done correctly to prevent legal costs from eating up what you hoped to leave to your loved ones.
The Wall Street Journal argues DIY estate planning can work for people with uncomplicated estates. Unfortunately, whether a “simple will” is appropriate for your circumstances isn’t up to you—it’s determined by your assets, your family situation, and other factors. Anyone with minor children, blended families, property in other states, or any otherwise unusual life circumstances will want to at least consult with an attorney who specializes in estate planning. The lawyer might tell you that you’re better off letting state laws dictate where your property will go than risking it with a DIY form.
Estate planning attorneys aren’t overpaid form-fillers. A good estate planning attorney spends hours interviewing her clients, gathering and scrutinizing documents (like divorce decrees and business operating agreements), educating clients about their options, and helping clients make the best choices to accomplish their goals. She makes a genuine effort to get to know her clients and their families, values, hopes, and dreams, well beyond the scope of a 15-minute form interview. Many attorneys offer free initial meetings; before you go the DIY route, find an attorney you trust to talk through your situation. Even if you don’t ultimately ask the attorney to draft your documents, you’re likely to come out of the meeting armed with information that will help you make better decisions about your estate planning.
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