In today’s world of electronics and the Internet, people are turning to their computer for answers to even the most complex questions. Estate planning websites are all over the place. They all claim to help you prepare a valid will at an extremely low price. Personally, I’m a big believer in “you get what you pay for.” Is it worth it to save a few hundred dollars and risk putting your entire estate at risk? Online legal document services offer an enticing bargain. Most people realize that they need an estate plan to manage their affairs if something happens to them. But, estate planning attorneys can be expensive. That’s why many potential clients are now questioning whether it’s possible to skip the attorney fees and use a low-cost Web site to prepare estate planning documents. The short answer is that, yes, it is possible. The longer answer, in my humble opinion, is that it’s not recommended. You could save a few bucks now, but end up creating an expensive and frustrating mess for your family.
Hiring an estate planning attorney may seem overwhelming to you and you may wonder if it is really worth it. Let’s look at this on a basic level. An attorney is a live person, professionally trained in a specific area of the law, who will listen to your particular needs and goals. A computer program cannot take into account all the particulars of your circumstances and help you make strategic decisions to meet the needs of your loved ones. A Web site cannot anticipate what you may need in the future, like the appointment of a guardian or a healthcare directive or your plans to move to Florida in three years.
If you are considering using a website to create your estate plan, you should at least meet with an estate planning attorney first to discuss your options. It would be a tragedy to save a few dollars now, only to end up having documents that fail to protect your estate or fail to provide for your loved ones when they need it the most. In the end, contacting an experienced estate planning attorney today may save your family a fortune in the future.
Unfortunately, most people don’t realize what they are getting themselves into with an online document service. That’s because the online services have spent millions trying to create the impression that their services are similar to those of an attorney. They put lawyers in their commercials, hire celebrities to promote them, and parade multitudes of people who have supposedly successfully used their documents. But all the marketing in the world can’t erase the simple truth. These online services aren’t law firms. They aren’t lawyers. They can’t give legal advice. Instead, they are just “document assistants.” It’s just a mindless program typing whatever your information is into a form, whether or not it makes sense and whether or not it is a good idea. If you are stuck, they can’t help you. If you make a huge mistake, they can’t warn you. It would be a crime for them to warn you. It doesn’t matter if the guy working on your documents is an estate planning genius. He’s not allowed to give legal advice.
These companies design their generic forms so that even without legal advice, it’s hard to make mistakes. That may seem like a good thing. However, it turns out that the best way to make sure that your documents don’t do anything wrong is to make sure they don’t do anything at all. They’re just do-nothing, one-size-fits-all generic documents.
That leads to another problem with the online services. They can’t even promise you that the documents will work. Again, they can’t. They aren’t attorneys. After sitting down and discussing a particular situation, many clients are excited to learn that they can leave assets to a special needs child without jeopardizing government benefits or that they can protect a child’s inheritance from frivolous lawsuits, divorce or bankruptcy. A well-designed estate plan makes sure that your assets get where you want them and that they are used in the way you instruct. It’s about creating legally-enforceable provisions that do what you want done.
The online document services can’t promise any of that. They can’t promise you’ll achieve your goals. They can’t point out opportunities, and they can’t warn you about hidden hazards. Really, all they can do is save you a few bucks. But they play a clever price game, too. Most of the online services compare their prices to what an attorney would charge for similar documents. Their comparisons are misleading in two ways. First, they often compare the price they charge for a single document to the price that an attorney charges for an entire estate plan, which includes numerous documents. Secondly, and more importantly, there is no way to compare the prices because they aren’t even offering the same thing that you would get from an attorney. It’s like trying to compare a steak at a fast food restaurant versus a high-end steakhouse. Fortunately, most people can taste the difference and pay for (and get) what they actually want. And, that might include some ambiance and waiter service. That’s because most people have experience with restaurants, both good and bad. They know how to judge quality, and they understand the “you get what you pay for” concept.
When it comes to legal planning, most people don’t have the experience to know better. You only get to use an estate plan once. If you screw it up, you’ll never know, but trust me, your family will know. If your estate plan doesn’t work properly, your family could end up paying the price and cleaning up the mess long after you’re gone.