With all of the media about “digital wills” and “online estate planning” it could be tempting to think you can do your estate planning yourself, online. And, maybe you can. But, if you do, you need to know the potential pitfalls. Online estate planning could be a big trap for the unwary and actually leave your family worse off than if you had done nothing at all.
First and foremost, before you do any of your own online estate planning, it’s critical to understand your family dynamics, the nature of your assets, and what the state would say should happen to your assets if something happens to you. You see, whether or not you do estate planning, the state does have a plan for your assets if you become incapacitated or when you die. You need to know what that plan is, so you know whether or not you want to change it.
A good start on getting educated is this one hour training with financial and legal expert Ali Katz, which clarifies what you can and should do yourself, for free, online. The easy-to-watch training gives you access to a free online tool that you can use to create the one thing that would be most important for your family: a “treasure map” listing everything you own, where it is, and how your loved ones can access it. This tool is free to use, and creating your own personal resource map will be a true gift for the people you love.
But Don’t I Need a Will and Can’t I Just Do It Online?
Here’s the funny thing about estate planning: the one legal document that everyone thinks they need most actually does the least.
Every adult does need SOME estate planning. A will is always a good idea because it says who gets and who is in charge of distributing what you have. However, if the default law would have given your assets to the same people you would choose and authority to the person you would name anyway, then an online will would probably do nothing valuable for you at all.
A will does not keep your family out of court. And if drafted improperly, it could require the person you’ve named to handle things for you to get a bond, which is like an insurance policy. These can be hard to get for an executor who has less than a stellar credit score. If your named executor cannot get a bond, it would then mean the court would appoint a court ordered executor, and that can be costly for your estate. This is just one of the examples of how having a will prepared online, can create more expense for the people you love. Unfortunately, all of the online will preparation solutions I’ve reviewed don’t even mention this risk.
So, yes, you can do your own will online, but at what potential cost for the people you love?
The Problem with Online Wills
DIY online estate plans (and even many estate plans created by lawyers) usually include three to five basic documents: a will, a financial power of attorney, an advance health care directive, possibly a trust, and a legal guardian nomination if you have minor children.
But, honestly, completing these documents without counsel is simply not sufficient to guarantee your estate will be executed as simply, affordably, and effectively as you would wish.
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? What will be done with all the personal, sentimental items you want to pass on to your children?
There have been far too many scenarios where seniors, even those who had some estate planning done, get caught in the court system or even declared incompetent, and then have court-appointed guardians named, who then drain their accounts. In many cases, their assets are taken before they can get to their kids. You don’t want that to happen to you or your family, right? If not, a do-it-yourself will won't keep that from happening.
What about making sure your family knows what you have and where it is? An online will won’t tell them that. There’s somewhere between $49 billion and $80 billion being held in state departments of unclaimed property across the United States because someone died and their family lost track of their assets.
So how can you be sure you’ve got everything covered, legally?
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 what you’ve created in your life, without a big mess.
Think about this: do you know anyone who has lost family relationships because, after a loved one died, the family ended up in an irrevocable fight? Maybe this has even happened in your own family. It has definitely happened in mine and the consequences—both, financial and emotional—can be devastating.
And, it’s all unnecessary.
Yes, even if there are attorneys on staff at these online companies, 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 and easy answers to complex issues.
The Kind of Help 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. Even if they are well-intentioned, they’re working with an old, traditional system that was born around the same time as word processing, and the lawyer’s focus is still very much on having the “best” documents. But the 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 the documents can be written as simply as possible to achieve your wishes. You need much more than just a set of four or five filled-out template documents to address all those complexities. The way we see it is, if you want things to be as simple as possible for the people you love, when something happens to you, you want counsel to prepare a plan that achieves your desired objectives.
This is where a Personal Family Lawyer® comes in. They have specific training in how to educate you, empower you, and support you to make the right decisions for the people you love, while they get to know what really matters to you.
They do this through their Family Wealth Planning Session process. If, as a result of the process, they see that you really do have a very simple situation, and you want to create your documents yourself online, they support you to do that. If, as a result of the Family Wealth Planning Session you decide you do need them to draft a plan for you, they support you to choose the right planning fee for you.
They only take a limited amount of individuals or couples through the Family Wealth Planning Session process each month, so they can ensure that the clients they work with get the attention they need to create a plan that actually works for the people they love.
They 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, they ensure you understand your plan, and they ensure you pass along more than just your money.
Do it yourself estate planning is risky. While it may be better than nothing, it may also be worse. And it won’t be until after you are gone that your loved ones find out that answer. If you want to do the right thing by the people you love, you have three options for how to get started: