“Why do people use lawyers to prepare their wills?” a prospective client once asked me. “I don’t have a lot of stuff and I was wondering whether I could buy the forms at Office Depot.”
It’s a valid question. After all, Office Depot sells will preparation software for $69.95, less than the cost of consulting an attorney to prepare your will. And several other do-it-yourself services offer wills for less. You can probably even find a free will form online if you look long enough. Why should you use an attorney to prepare a will for you?
DIY Estate Planning is Fraught with Risk
Document preparation services make it appear that the process of creating a will is easy. As a result, many people mistakenly believe that their estate planning needs can be met by simply filling in the blanks in canned documents.
What they don’t realize is that do-it-yourself estate planning is fraught with risk. So much so that even an educated consumer can be lulled into a false sense of security by a document with significant flaws.
DIY Services are not a Substitute for the Advice of an Attorney
Before using do-it-yourself document preparation services or forms, pay careful attention to their disclaimers. Generally, they specify that they are not acting as your attorney, that the information they provide is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney, and that they cannot apply the law to the facts of your individual circumstances.
Individual Circumstances Impact Estate Planning
Why is the disclaimer significant? Because your individual circumstances have a huge impact on what kind of provisions you need in your will. In other words, language that may further one person’s goals and objectives may be disastrous for another.
For example, if you are married with no children, naming your spouse the sole beneficiary of your entire estate would be reasonable. However, suppose you are part of a blended family and have children from a previous marriage. If your will gives all your assets to your new spouse outright, you may end up disinheriting your children. For a specific example of how this can happen, read Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistake Disinherits Child.
Or perhaps you’d like to name your children as beneficiaries of your estate. If they are responsible and financially stable adults, it may not be problematic to leave them an inheritance outright. But if your children are still minors, doing so might trigger the need for an expensive guardianship. Or if one of your children has special needs, he or she may be disqualified from receiving any means-tested benefits until the inheritance is used up.
Get the idea? The devil is in the details. Consideration of factors like these influence whether your estate planning documents will work. The documents you create with these do-it yourself estate planning services may look good and have impressive language. But if they don’t work for your unique circumstances, they are completely worthless.
A False Sense of Security
Unfortunately, the fact that documents created with do-it-yourself document preparation services look and sound good gives people a false sense of security. They believe the documents they prepare will address their estate planning needs. But with estate planning documents, they are unlikely to discover their mistakes.
Why? Because the mistakes don’t become evident until you die, and the people left to deal with the mistakes are likely the people you’re preparing your will to protect.
The Bottom Line
Attorneys don’t simply fill in forms. We use our years of schooling and experience to analyze your unique circumstances, explain the ramifications of your choices, advise you on the best way to accomplish your goals and objectives, and tailor your documents to address your unique estate planning needs. Document preparation services and canned forms do not.
Incidentally this client and I had our initial conference recently. After spending almost an hour talking on the phone, she told me she was really glad she decided to use an attorney instead of trying to write her own will. “I would have been screwed,” she said.