Do a Google search for “digital wills” or “online estate planning,” and you’ll find dozens of different websites offering low-cost, do-it-yourself (DIY) and sometimes even free estate planning documents, such as wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and healthcare directives. From LegalZoom® and Rocket Lawyer® to TrustandWill.com and FreeWill.com, these DIY legal documents may seem like a cheap and easy way to finally cross estate planning off your to-do list—and do so without having to pay a lawyer big bucks to assist you. After all, you’ve been able to prepare and file your taxes online for years, is estate planning really that much different? And aren’t lawyers using the very same forms you find on these DIY document websites?
An Inconvenient Truth This kind of thinking is exactly what DIY and online estate planning services would like you to believe, but it’s far from true. In fact, relying on DIY or online estate planning documents can be one of the costliest mistakes you can make for your loved ones. Keep in mind, just because you created “legal” estate planning documents that doesn’t mean they will actually work when you—or most importantly, the people you love—need them.
Without a thorough understanding of your family dynamics, the nature of your assets, and how the legal process works upon your death or incapacity, you are likely to make serious mistakes when creating a DIY estate plan. Even worse, these mistakes won’t be discovered until it’s too late—and the loved ones you were trying to protect will be the very ones forced to clean up your mess or get stuck in a costly and traumatic court process that can drag out for months or even years.
Last week, in part one of this series, we covered the first two ways DIY estate plans can fail, and here, we’ll cover the remaining three.
Number 3 Way Your DIY Estate Plan Can Fail: Choosing the Wrong Executors or Trustees State laws are also very specific about who can serve in certain roles like executor, trustee, or financial power of attorney. In some states, for instance, the executor of your will must either be a family member or an in-law, and if not, the person must live in your state. If your chosen executor doesn’t meet those requirements, he or she cannot serve.
Furthermore, some states require the person you name as your executor to get a bond, which is like an insurance policy, before he or she can serve. Such bonds can be difficult to get for someone who has a less-than-stellar credit score. If your executor cannot get a bond, it would be up to the court to appoint your executor, which could end up being someone you would never want managing your assets or a third-party professional, who could drain your estate with costly fees.
Number 4 Way Your DIY Estate Plan Can Fail: Lost and Unclaimed Assets Unless your family knows exactly what assets you own and how to locate and access those assets, that property is as good as gone when you die—and your online will won’t be of any use to your family. In fact, there’s currently more than $50 billion worth of unclaimed property sitting in the different state Departments of Unclaimed Property across the U.S. because a family member died and their loved ones lost track of their assets.
To ensure that none of your assets end up in your state’s Department of Unclaimed Property, and your family will know exactly what you have and how to find everything if something happens to you, it's essential that you keep a regularly updated inventory of all your assets. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we will not only help you create a comprehensive asset inventory, we'll make sure it stays regularly updated throughout your lifetime.
Number 5 Way Your DIY Estate Plan Can Fail: Unforeseen Conflict Between Family Members Family dynamics are—to put it lightly—quite complex. This is particularly true for blended families, where spouses have children from previous relationships. A DIY service cannot help you consider all the potential areas where conflict might arise among your family members and help you plan ahead of time to avoid such disputes. Even the best set of documents will be unable to anticipate and navigate these complex emotional matters—but we can.
Every day we see families ripped apart due to poor estate planning. Yet, we also see families brought closer together as a result of handling these matters the right way. When done right, the estate planning process is actually a huge opportunity to build new connections within your family, and our lawyers are specifically trained to help you with that.
In fact, preventing family conflict with proactive estate planning is our special sauce and one of the primary reasons to work with us rather than relying on DIY planning documents.
The Kind Of Planning Your Family Deserves When it comes to estate planning, the documents you use are only as good as the understanding your lawyer has about your family dynamics, the nature of your assets, and how the law will apply to your situation upon your death or incapacity. And in most cases, you will need far more than just a few fill-in-the blank documents to properly address all of those complexities. If you truly want things to be as simple as possible for the people you love when something happens to you, you want a trusted counsel who can prepare an estate plan that will achieve your desired objectives with a minimum amount of stress and conflict for the loved ones you are leaving behind, not just someone who has the best documents. This is where we come in.
If you’ve yet to do any planning, contact us to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session, which is the first step in our Life & Legacy Planning Process. During this initial meeting, we’ll take you through an analysis of your assets, what’s most important to you, and what will happen to your loved ones when you die or if you become incapacitated. If, as a result of this process, we determine that you really do have a very simple situation, and you want to create your own planning documents yourself online, we will support you to do that. However, if as a result of the process, you decide you would like us to draft a plan for you, we’ll support you to find the optimal level of planning for a price that’s right for you.
As part of our planning process, we will inventory all of your assets and ensure they are titled in a way that will keep your family out of court and out of conflict no matter what happens to you. Moreover, we take the time to get to know your family members and include them in the planning process, so everyone affected by your plan is well-aware of what your latest planning strategies are and why you made the choices you did, along with knowing exactly what they need to do if something happens to you. And if you are the parent of minor children, we will put safeguards in place to ensure that your kids are never placed into the care of strangers, even temporarily. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our Life & Legacy Planning process will ensure that it’s not just your money and tangible assets that get preserved and passed on, but also your family’s intangible legacy, which includes your family’s most treasured values, insights, stories, and mementos. We capture and record your family’s legacy using a unique process known as a Family Wealth Legacy Interview, which is included with every estate plan we create.
Life & Legacy Planning Ultimately, we’ve discovered that estate planning is about far more than planning for your death and passing on your “estate” to your loved ones—it’s about planning for a life you love and a legacy worth leaving by the choices you make today—and this is why we call our services Life & Legacy Planning. We are specifically trained to educate, empower, and support you to make the right decisions for the people you love, and get to know what really matters most to you. Furthermore, because your plan is designed to protect and provide for your loved ones in the event of your death or incapacity, we aren’t just here to serve you—we’re here to serve your entire family.
In the end, our Life & Legacy Planning services go far beyond simply creating documents and then never seeing you again. We will develop a relationship with you and your family that lasts not only for your lifetime but for the lifetime of your children and their children if that’s your wish. While the DIY approach might be a good idea if you’re looking to build a new deck for your backyard, when it comes to estate planning, it’s one of the worst choices you can make. Are you really willing to put your family’s well-being and wealth at risk just to save a few bucks? If you want to truly do right by those you love, contact us to get your Life & Legacy Plan started today.