Go online, and you’ll find tons of websites offering do-it-yourself estate planning documents. Such forms are typically quite inexpensive. Simple wills, for example, are often priced under $50, and you can complete and print them out in a matter of minutes.
In our uber-busy lives and DIY culture, it’s no surprise that this kind of thing might seem like a good deal. You know estate planning is important, and even though you may not be getting the highest quality plan, such documents can make you feel better for having checked this item off your life’s lengthy to-do list.
But this is one case in which something is not better than nothing, and here’s why:
A false sense of security
Creating a DIY will online can lead you to believe that you no longer have to worry about estate planning. After all, you got it done, right?
Except that you didn’t. In fact, you thought you “got it done” because you went online, printed a form, and had it notarized, but you didn’t investigate what would actually happen with that document in place in the event of your incapacity or when you die. Unfortunately, in the end, what seemed like a bargain could end up costing your family more money and heartache than if you’d never gotten around to doing anything at all.
Creating a DIY will can lead you to believe that you no longer have to worry about estate planning. In the back of your mind, you might even promise that one day you’ll revisit and update your plan with something better, but chances are, having done “something” will lead you to put this off until it’s too late.
By doing nothing, on the other hand, at least you won’t be lulled into a false sense of security, and estate planning will still be at the top of your life’s to-do list, as it should be until you handle it properly.
It’s not just about filling out forms
Unfortunately, because many people don’t understand that estate planning entails much more than just filling out legal documents, they end up making serious mistakes with DIY plans. Worst of all, these mistakes are only discovered when you become incapacitated or die, and it’s too late. Then it’s not bad for you, it’s bad for everyone else in your life. Sadly, the people left to deal with your mistakes are often the very ones you were trying to do right by.
The primary purpose of wills and other estate planning tools is to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your death or incapacity. With the growing popularity of DIY wills, tens of thousands of families (and millions more to come) have learned the hard way that trying to handle estate planning alone can not only fail to fulfill this purpose, it can make the court cases and conflicts far worse and more expensive.
The hidden dangers of DIY wills
From the specific state you live in and the wording of the document, to the required formalities for how it must be signed and witnessed, there are numerous potential dangers involved with DIY wills and other estate planning documents. Estate planning is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all deal. Even if you think you have a simple situation, if you have children, that’s almost never the case.
The following scenarios are just a few of the most common complications that can result from attempting to go it alone with a DIY will:
Improper execution: For a will to be valid, it must be executed (i.e. signed and witnessed or notarized) following strict legal procedures. Such procedural requirements are designed to prevent foul play and vary by state. 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 fail to follow this procedure, it can be worthless.
Court challenges: Before the assets covered in a will can be transferred to your heirs, the will must go through the court process called probate. During probate, creditors, heirs, and other interested parties have the opportunity to contest your will or make claims against your estate. Though wills created with an attorney’s guidance can also be contested, DIY wills are not only far more likely to be challenged, but the chances of those challenges being successful are much greater than if you have an attorney-drafted will.
Thinking a will is enough: It is almost never the case that a will alone is sufficient to handle all of your legal affairs. In the event of your incapacity, you would also need a health care directive and/or a living will, plus a durable financial power of attorney. In the event of your death, a will does nothing to keep your loved one’s out of court. And if you have minor children, having a “just a will” could leave your kids’ at risk of being taken out of your home and into the care of strangers, at least temporarily.
In many ways, DIY will planning is the worst choice you can make for the people you love because you think you’ve got it covered, when you most certainly do not.
Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the hidden dangers of DIY estate planning.
If you’ve yet to do any estate planning at all, have DIY documents you aren’t sure about, or have a plan created with another lawyer’s help that hasn’t been updated or reviewed in more than a few years, meet with us as comprehensive estate planning legal team. We can ensure that your family will be kept out of court and out of conflict if something should happen to you. Contact us today to learn more.
To your family’s health, wealth, and happiness-
David Feakes is the Founding Attorney at The Parents Estate Planning Law Firm, PC – a law firm for families in the Acton, Massachusetts area. David helps parents protect the people they love the most.