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Online Estate Planning: When You Should, When You Shouldn’t and Where to Do It

As our community continues to struggle with the impact of the COVID-19 virus, one positive that has come to light is how much we can do virtually. From essential business functions to social gatherings with friends, many of us (including our firm!) have adapted and learned how to keep calm and carry on, online.

As we stay safer at home and go about much of our lives on the internet, it can be tempting to think you can do your estate planning online, too. And, maybe you can. But, if you do, you need to know the potential pitfalls. Online estate planning can be a trap for the uninformed and may actually leave your family worse off than if you had done nothing at all. 

But Don’t I Just Need a Will, and Can’t I Do It Online? 

Here’s the funny thing about estate planning: most people think a Will is the only legal document that they need (“I just need a Will”), but it is only a small part of a good, comprehensive plan.

Yes, every adult needs some estate planning, and a Will is always a good idea, because it spells out who gets your stuff and who is in charge of distributing it. However, a Will does not keep your family out of court. It will also not protect you and your loved ones if you are incapacitated and can’t speak for or care for yourself. It doesn’t guarantee that your minor children won’t be removed from your home and placed into the care of strangers. It won’t protect your assets from your heirs’ future creditors and divorces. It won’t help you pass down your story and your intangible legacy – the things that make you, “you.” And most importantly, it won’t provide clarity and guidance for the people you love who need to make decisions during what will undoubtedly be a difficult time for them. Simply put, a Will is not enough protection for most individuals and families.

DIY online estate plans (and even many estate plans created by lawyers who do not focus on estate planning for families) usually include three to five basic documents: a will, a financial power of attorney, an advance health care directive (living will,) possibly a trust, and a legal guardian nomination if you have minor children. 

The very nature of online programs require that these documents be standard cookie-cutter templates, that don’t take your unique family circumstances into account, and often may not even be compliant with up-to-date laws in your state. Completing ANY of these documents without counsel is simply not sufficient to guarantee your estate will be executed as simply, affordably, and effectively as you wish. 

If there are attorneys on staff at these on line companies who are available to talk, they don’t get to know you and your family dynamics enough to spot the real issues that could arise. They are, instead, focused on a one-size-fits-all solution.

For instance—are you sure there isn’t some missing consideration that could lead to turmoil as your family tries to figure it out? Did you know that most family fights don’t even happen over money, but over lack of clarity? Have you taken into account all your extended family, including stepchildren and ex-spouses? Have you excluded anyone you don’t want taking custody of your children or assets? What will be done with all the personal, sentimental items you want to pass on?

With online wills and DIY estate planning docs, you wouldn’t even know what questions to ask to uncover the potential risks to the people you love, who deserve to receive everything you’ve worked to create in your life and to carry on your story.

What CAN You Do Yourself?

Despite the dubious quality of online legal documents, there is some estate planning that you can do yourself, without the help of an attorney.

For starters, you can have a conversation. Start with yourself and, if you’re married, your spouse. Think about your wishes if you were to become ill, or to pass away. Then talk with your loved ones, so that everyone is on the same page. Use these conversations as a framework for establishing an inventory of what matters to you, and what you’d like to protect.

Next, you can think about creating your own advanced care directive. In Massachusetts, a living will is not a binding document, but it can still provide crucial guidance to your loved ones in the event you are unable to advocate for yourself. If you choose to document your wishes yourself, you’ll still want to work with an attorney to establish a legal power of attorney and a health care proxy to carry out these wishes.

Lastly, you can record a personal interview, to pass on the stories, guidance, and traditions you’d want your loved ones to know about if you weren’t here to tell them yourself. This is perhaps the most meaningful part of an estate plan (which is why we include it in all of our planning levels,) yet is overlooked completely by online planning, and by most other traditional estate planning law firms.  (Learn more about these safer-to-DIY items here.)

So How Can You Be Sure You’ve Got Everything Covered, Legally? The Kind of Estate Plan Your Family Deserves

Even lawyers who specialize in estate planning often base their work on template documents, and have limited skill in getting to the heart of your family matters. They may be well-intentioned, but they’re working with an old, traditional system that was last updated around the same time as word processing. Your estate planning documents are only as good as the understanding a lawyer has about your family dynamics, the nature of your assets, how the law will apply to your situation, and how they can be written as simply as possible to achieve your wishes. You need much more than just a set of three to five filled-out template documents to address all those complexities. 

This is where we come in. We work to educate you, empower you, and support you to make the right decisions for the people you love, while we get to know what really matters to you. 

We do this through our Family Wealth Planning Session: We start by having you tell us your story, so that we can get to know you and your family. We then inventory your assets, ensuring they are all owned in a way that will keep your family out of court (if you wish) and conflict (which you surely do); and ensure everyone named in your plan has what they need and understands your choices. Most importantly, we ensure you understand your plan, and we ensure you pass along more than just your money. 

Do-it-Yourself estate planning is risky. While it may be better than nothing, often it can be worse. And it won’t be you who suffers – it will be your family, who won’t discover costly errors until after you are gone. By then, it will be too late to fix them. If you want to do the right thing by the people you love, we offer some options for how to get started:

  1. Schedule a 15-minute call with our client services team to discuss whether a Family Wealth Planning Session is right for you, or to book an appointment with one of our attorneys. 
  2. Download one of our free reports, to learn in more detail what legal planning families with minor children, and empty nesters should have in place. 
  3. Attend a PEPtalk about DIY estate planning and learn what you can do from home yourself and what, specifically, we advise you do with an attorney.
  4. Attend a webinar and learn more about how to protect yourself, your loved ones and your assets.
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The Parents Estate Planning Law Firm, PC

At The Parents Estate Planning Law Firm, we answer your questions at your convenience; we stay in frequent communication; and we meet to discuss changes in life circumstances and in the law to ensure that your assets are protected.

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