Buyer Beware: The Hidden Dangers of DIY Estate Planning—Part 1
Do a Google search for “online estate planning documents,” and you’ll find dozens of different websites. From LegalZoom® and Willing.com to Rocket Lawyer® and Willandtrust.com, these do-it-yourself (DIY) planning services might seem like an enticing bargain.
The sites let you complete and print out just about any kind of planning document you can think of—wills, trusts, healthcare directives, and/or power of attorney—in just a matter of minutes. And the documents are typically quite inexpensive, with many sites offering “simple” wills for $50 or less.
At first glance, such DIY planning documents might appear to be a quick and inexpensive way to finally cross estate planning off your life’s lengthy to-do list. You know planning for your death and potential incapacity is important, but you just never seem to have time to take care of it.
And even if you realize your DIY plan won’t be as good as those prepared by a lawyer, at least it can serve as a temporary solution, until you can find time to meet with an attorney to upgrade. These forms may not be perfect, you reason, but at least they’re better than having no plan at all.
However, relying on DIY planning documents can actually be worse than having no plan at all—and here’s why:
An inconvenient truth
Creating a plan using online documents, can give you a false sense of security—you think you’ve got planning covered, when you most certainly do not. DIY plans may even lead you to believe that you no longer need to worry about estate planning, causing you to put it off until it’s too late.
In this way, relying on DIY planning documents is one of the most dangerous choices you can make. In the end, such generic forms could end up costing your family even more money and heartache than if you’d never gotten around to doing any planning at all.
At least with no plan at all, planning would likely remain at the front of your mind, where it rightfully belongs until it’s handled properly.
Planning to fail
Many people don’t realize that estate planning involves much more than just filling out legal forms. Without a thorough understanding of how the legal process works upon your death or incapacity, you’ll likely make serious mistakes when creating a DIY plan. Even worse, these mistakes won’t be discovered until it’s too late—and the loved ones you were trying to protect will be the very ones forced to clean up your mess.
The whole purpose of estate planning is to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your death or incapacity. Yet, as cheap online estate planning services become more and more popular, millions of people are learning—or will soon learn—that taking the DIY route can not only fail to achieve this purpose, it can make the court cases and family conflicts far worse and more expensive.
One size does not fit all
Online planning documents may appear to save you time and money, but keep in mind, just because you created “legal” documents doesn’t mean they will actually work when you need them. Indeed, if you read the fine print of most DIY planning websites, you’ll find numerous disclaimers pointing out that their documents are “no substitute” for the advice of a lawyer.
Some disclaimers warn that these documents are not even guaranteed to be “correct, complete, or up to date.” These facts should be a huge red flag, but it’s just one part of the problem.
This is an excerpt from LegalZoom’s disclaimer:
LegalZoom’s document service also includes a review of your answers for completeness, spelling and grammar, as well as internal consistency of names, addresses and the like. At no time do we review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation. LegalZoom and its services are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. Although LegalZoom takes every reasonable effort to ensure that the information on our website and documents are up-to-date and legally sufficient, the legal information on this site is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Because the law changes rapidly, is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and is also subject to varying interpretations by different courts and certain government and administrative bodies, LegalZoom cannot guarantee that all the information on the site is completely current. The law is a personal matter, and no general information or legal tool like the kind LegalZoom provides can fit every circumstance.
Even if the forms are 100% correct and up-to-date, there are still many potential pitfalls that can cause the documents to not work as intended—or fail all together. And without an attorney to advise you, you won’t have any idea of what you should watch out for.
Estate planning is definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. Even if you think your particular planning situation is simple, that turns out to almost never be the case. To demonstrate just how complicated the planning process can be, here are 4 common complications you’re likely to encounter with DIY plans.
1. Improper execution
To be considered legally valid, some planning documents must be executed (i.e. signed and witnessed or notarized) following very strict legal procedures. For example, many states require that you and every witness to your will must sign it in the presence of one another. If your DIY will doesn’t mention that (or you don’t read the fine print) and you fail to follow this procedure, the document can be worthless.
2. Not adhering to state law
State laws are also very specific about who can serve in certain roles like trustee, executor, or financial power of attorney. In some states, for instance, the executor of your will must either be a family member or an in-law, and if not, the person must live in your state. If your chosen executor doesn’t meet those requirements, he or she cannot serve.
3. Unforeseen conflict
Family dynamics can be complex. That is especially true for blended families, where spouses have children from previous relationships. A DIY service cannot help you consider all the potential areas where conflict might arise among your family members and help you plan ahead of time to avoid it. When done right, the estate planning process is actually a huge opportunity to build new connections within your family, and we’re specifically trained to help you with that. In fact, that’s our special sauce.
We’ve all seen the impact of families ripped apart due to poor planning. Yet, every day we see families brought closer together as a result of handling these matters the right way. We want that for your family.
4. Thinking a will is enough
Lots of people believe that creating a will is sufficient to handle all of their planning needs. But this is rarely the case. A will, for example, does nothing in the event of your incapacity, for which you would also need a healthcare directive and/or a living will, plus a durable financial power of attorney.
Furthermore, because a will requires probate, it does nothing to keep your loved ones out of court upon your death. And if you have minor children, relying on a will alone could leave your kids vulnerable to being taken out of your home and into the care of strangers.
Don’t do it yourself
Given all of these potential dangers, DIY estate plans are a disaster waiting to happen. And as we’ll see next week, perhaps the worst consequence of trying to handle estate planning on your own is the potentially tragic impact it can have on the people you love most of all—your children.
Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the hidden dangers of DIY estate planning.
If you’ve yet to create a plan, have DIY documents you aren’t sure about, or have a plan created with another lawyer’s help that hasn’t been reviewed in more than a year, meet with us so that we can review your documents. Contact us today to learn more.
This article is a service of attorney Myrna Serrano Setty. Myrna doesn’t just draft documents, she ensures you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why our law firm offers a Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. Call us today to schedule a Planning Session. Mention this article to find out how to get this $500 session at no charge.