I am an estate planning attorney, an executor of people’s estates, and a professional trustee, serving clients in Santa Barbara County, Ventura County, and Los Angeles County.
Over the course of my career, I have seen hundreds of different estate-planning documents, including some from do-it-yourself online services, such as Nolo and LegalZoom.
I appreciate that using a DIY will-creation site to create your estate plan can save you money and time. I am, however, extremely concerned that sometimes doing your estate documents and estate plan online can lead to expensive and unpleasant estate planning mistakes, tying up your money (and your heirs) for years, and costing tens of thousands of dollars more than necessary.
Just as a minor example, one (very prominent do-it-yourself online estate-planning service has typos on its site. Worse its estate-planning packages have the same document labeled with three different names, which does nothing but confuse the consumer.
Worse yet, the estate planning packages on their site are (all of them) missing a vital estate planning document – one which very few users would know to ask about, but which can cause enormous issues in properly completing an estate planning package.
This prominent online estate-planning website, (like many other online estate-planning sites), has attorneys on staff, but access to specific help for your personal documents is not included in your purchade price. If you want advice personalized to your specific family and financial situation, that will cost you a great deal more.
Do-It-Yourself Online Wills vs. Hiring an Estate Planning Attorney?
Dealing with lawyers sucks. There’s no way around it. While many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks in the comfort of our home, then have to talk to an estate planning attorney about our questions, doubts or concerns, sometimes it helps – a huge amount – to get professional advice. For people with complicated personal and financial lives, online, do-it-yourself will and trust services simply don’t do a proper job and can miss extremely important details.
If you prepare your taxes yourself and make a mistake, you and the IRS can work things out. If you decide to do your estate planning by yourself, however, you will never know the results of your work – but your family will have to live with the results.
What Is Proper Estate Planning?
Our power to express our preferences is what good estate planning (or life planning), is all about. In my work as a trustee and executor, I’ve learned that the documents which provide me with detailed instructions are critical to avoiding court involvement, reducing administrative confusion and knowing when our job is done.
The four basic estate planning documents: a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters, and an advance health care directive. If you plan to use any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. Keep in mind that each state has its own probate code (the body of law governing estate planning and implementation). The software package you use may have different names for the same documents I have listed above.
Some of the DIY sites I visited have all of these documents for you, but only if you purchase their higher-end packages. Some offer limited attorney consultation; on one site, it was really a drop-down of questions with pre-written responses, not an actual conversation with an attorney.
Pros and cons of DIY estate planning
The advantage of using a DIY service is that you will have a plan, as quickly and cheaply as possible, and that may be better than having no plan at all. This is especially true regarding getting a will, power of attorney and advance health care directive. Those handle most emergencies for people who don’t own real estate or much else.
Most presume that you already know what you want. But the reality is that many people have no idea what they want or need. Once you get into the complexities of family dynamics and perhaps trust language specific to your state and situation, DIY estate planning can cause more challenges than working with a team of professionals.
My caution about DIY online wills
Here is my caution, based on my experience: You don’t know – what you don’t know. You know some things about how you want to dispose of your assets after you die. What you may not know is all the case law and legislation that have evolved into your state’s probate code.
If you do decide to retain an attorney who specializes in estate planning, I recommend interviewing two or more. You want someone who you can feel comfortable working with. You want someone who listens, and who wants to learn about your family.
You may also already have other trusted professionals (a CPA, a financial planner) who can refer you to estate planners in your area.
However you choose to get your plan completed, DIY or with the help of an experienced attorney, please get your estate plan done, and soon. You never know what surprises life will bring that will invoke your estate plan.