Do-it-Yourself Estate Planning. Is it really worth it?

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The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a renewed and urgent interest in estate planning, including the creation, updating, and/or finalization of estate planning documents.

In the past few weeks, our office has received a number of calls requesting us to review the estate plans people have made using online sites such as LegalZoom, Nolo, and LawDepot. Unfortunately, I had to inform them that our office does not review documents made using these sites. Given how prevalent these sites are and how many individuals seem to leverage them for complex legal matters, I began to wonder, “how reliable are these sites and are their documents legally enforceable?”

Don’t get me wrong, I am all about a good “DIY” project. My husband and I have spent many a weekends painting rooms, refinishing tables, installing appliances, etc., all to save a buck. That said, is something as complex as estate planning a project that the average person can “do-it-themselves”?. You can rationalize something like painting your house instead of hiring a professional because it seems relatively straight-forward and just requires time and patience. Meanwhile, if estate planning is simple enough to do on my own without guidance, then why are lawyers required to get an undergraduate degree, then go to law school, and then pass the bar to be certified to complete something I can do in my bathrobe in-between my Netflix binging? Well, if it’s too good to be true, it generally is. As it turns out, doing your estate planning without the assistance of a lawyer often exposes you and your heirs to serious and expensive legal problems.

DIY legal providers, like LegalZoom, entice users with low rates. For $179 you can walk-away with an “estate plan bundle,” whatever that is, but what you don’t realize is that the cheaper service you just purchased could cost much more in the future. These DIY legal providers give clients a false sense of security.

Often people believe their situation, and financial picture are simple enough for them to plan. However, if there is a mistake, an estate plan is not something you can correct later. Usually, the error isn’t discovered until there is a death – Then it’s too late.

An estate planning attorney personalizes your estate plan to YOUR situation. Everyone is unique and using a canned legal form more-than-likely won’t address YOUR specific needs. The most common mistakes we see with do-it-yourself estate planning documents have to do with the omission of specific requirements or legal formalities.

Let me give you an example of what could go wrong by over-relying on a “DIY” Legal Service:

  • Katherine Webster, the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against LegalZoom, used the service to help her uncle prepare a Will and Trust. Katherine believed that the documents she and her uncle created using the software were legally binding and that the LegalZoom Customer Service Department would help if they encountered any problems. Despite her hopes, when they attempted to move assets into the Trust they established using LegalZoom, the financial institution that held Katherine’s uncle’s money did not recognize the LegalZoom documents as valid. She reached out to LegalZoom Customer Service for assistance to no avail and had to hire an estate planning attorney to remedy the problems. While correcting the matter with the financial institution, her lawyer discovered that the Will Katherine and her uncle created with LegalZoom was not properly witnessed and therefore, also invalid. Correcting the LegalZoom Will and Trust documents cost the estate of Katherine’s uncle thousands of dollars and Katherine ended up filing a lawsuit with LegalZoom over the debacle.
  • I personally have needed to appear at probate court to fix an issue with an improperly executed DIY Will before a judge. Similarly, I needed to go to court in order to sell real estate, where an improperly executed DIY Will did not include certain necessary language – something pretty basic for an attorney to include. The list of times we have navigated helping family members deal with financial matters after a DIY Durable Power of Attorney doesn’t hold water is a long one. All these situations create undue expense, hardship and angst that could have been avoided.

Do a quick Google Search and you can find many more examples like what happened to Katherine and her uncle, or our law office. Chances are, each example you find, the user wanted to save some money or save some time. If cheap and fast is what you are after, then “DIY” estate planning is what you are looking for. If, on the other hand, you really want to make sure that your wishes are going to be fully executed, then hiring a lawyer is the best option.

When you make the decision to create an estate plan, you are doing so because you want to be confident in the legacy you leave for your loved ones. You make an estate plan because you want to ensure that there is no ambiguity in how your estate should be handled in your passing. Things worth doing are worth doing correctly; for something as important as estate planning, is your legacy worth taking that risk?

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