Thanks to easily accessible guides offered by document services on the internet, do-it-yourself is now an option for creating an estate plan. Of course a fill-in-the-blank will or trust can be tempting, especially when you are not sure where to start. But is it a good idea, really, to DIY your estate plan?
The answer is: It depends. Even a DIY estate plan is better than nothing, because it could provide some guidance to your loved ones as to your wishes. However, when the choice is between DIY and hiring a qualified attorney to create a thorough, customized estate plan, you are almost always better served by working with an attorney who can guide you through the process, answer all your questions, and ensure that your estate plan contains everything you need.
At first glance, DIY products seem less expensive than a custom estate plan created by an attorney. If you look carefully at what you will actually get for the quoted prices, however, what appears to be savings may cost more in the long run. Fill-in-the-blank services charge standard rates, but each fee only covers a single document (such as a will) — and nobody will be available to tell you how all the documents in your estate plan should work together.
By contrast, most estate planning attorneys will create a complete estate plan that includes multiple documents: a trust and/or will, healthcare power of attorney, durable power of attorney for property, and a beneficiary deed. The cost of a single DIY product isn’t such a bargain if you consider all of the documents you need in order to have a complete estate plan.
The biggest shortcoming of a DIY estate plan is that you really are doing it yourself — by yourself. When you sit down to answer an array of questions, some of which you might not have considered before, and make important choices that will affect the lives of those you love most, you will be doing so without the guidance of someone who knows the law, knows how to best make an estate plan function the way you wish, and knows how to avoid pitfalls.
DIY websites are aware of this. In fact, one of the most popular online do-it-yourself will-writing products includes this disclaimer: “We are not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.” In other words, they know that only an experienced attorney can guide you through the process of creating an estate plan that meets your needs.
But people use document service estate planning tools every day. What’s the big deal? What could go wrong?
For starters, if you DIY a complete estate plan — not just a will — and do not execute the documents with all the formalities required by the law in your state, the documents may not ever be valid. Or your plan may not work the way you anticipated, which could create hardship for those administering your estate. Even if you only DIY a will, your beneficiaries may not receive their inheritance.
The “simplicity” of DIY may seem attractive, but how will you know if you make a mistake? After you’re gone, the people administrating your estate may not be able to put your plans into action and your beneficiaries could be on their own. The wise choice is to work with an attorney who can warn you about possible errors as well as explain the various documents in an estate plan. With guidance from a qualified estate planning attorney, you can gain peace of mind, avoid hassle and cost for those administering your estate, and ensure that your loved ones are taken care of exactly the way you want.