More than 50% of Americans don’t have a will, according to a 2017 survey by Caring.com.
A U.S. News & World Report’s article asks “Should You Make a Free Will Online?” According to the article, before writing your will or using an online service, you need to know the legal requirements in your area. In many instances, this is best left to a legal professional in your state.
There are plenty of online tools that will help you create a will. However, before clicking on a website’s promise, you need to evaluate the disclaimers.
There are three main ways to write a will:
Do it yourself;
Use a do-it-yourself program; or
Get help from a qualified estate planning attorney.
If you draft a will on your own, you’ll need to be absolutely certain you understand all of the applicable probate, tax and property laws in order to avoid unintended consequences that won’t become apparent until after you have passed away. Many of the most interesting cases in court arose out of holographic or self written wills.
If you use an online service, you’ll have access to software that walks you through the process. That is a step in the right direction. But look at the disclaimers on the website. No matter what the website or marketing says or how great it sounds, the disclaimers tell another story. For instance, here is a current quote from LegalZoom, a leader in online document creation services:
“LegalZoom is not a law firm, and the employees of LegalZoom are not acting as your attorney. LegalZoom’s legal document service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney. LegalZoom cannot provide legal advice and can only provide self-help services at your specific direction. LegalZoom is not permitted to engage in the practice of law. LegalZoom is prohibited from providing any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation to a consumer about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.”
The disclaimer closes by saying:
“LegalZoom is not responsible for any loss, injury, claim, liability, or damage related to your use of this site or any site linked to this site, whether from errors or omissions in the content of our site or any other linked sites, from the site being down or from any other use of the site. In short, your use of the site is at your own risk.”
Read the full disclaimer at: https://www.legalzoom.com/disclaimer.html
On the other hand, if you engage the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to have an expert help you think through the details. This result will be a well-drafted will. Yes, it will cost a bit more, but your loved ones and peace of mind are well worth it.
If you have a larger estate or assets you want to protect for a spouse or children, it’s wise to work with an attorney who can counsel you on the best solutions for your situation. For example, if you have a child with special needs receiving government benefits, you should have an attorney create a trust so their inheritance doesn’t negatively impact their benefits. Or if you have a child whose inheritance you want to protect from his or her money problems or potential divorces, work with an attorney.
You should also use an attorney if you want to reduce your exposure to probate fees and costs. In order to avoid probate, many people transfer their assets into a revocable living trust, so they are not subject to probate fees and costs. An online service can’t typically give you this type of attention or personalized service, and they can’t assist you with funding your living trust, which is critical in order to avoid probate.
In fact, I would argue that, in many cases, you’ll actually end up paying considerably less by using an attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney has helped hundreds of families. He or she can offer insight into setting up guardians for minor children, appointing an individual to be in charge of the distribution of the estate, and can optimize your estate plan to save as much overall tax as is possible. There are frequently income tax, property tax, estate and gift tax considerations about which the average person (or attorney) doesn’t know or monitor.
Reference: U.S. News & World Report (January 9, 2019) “Should You Make a Free Will Online?”