This post concerns what I see are the dangers of people buying fill in the blank Wills in stores, over the internet, or using consumer software. And I am going to admit right up front that I have a personal and financial bias. My job is to provide estate planning services, which may include wills, trusts, advanced directives and other documents, to clients. Like anyone else who works for a living, I certainly prefer that people hire me and not someone else. If instead of going to me, people buy software that purports to prepare Wills, or they buy a Will from a company that constantly advertises on the radio, then I am not benefiting financially.
But this post isn’t about that at all. If a client chooses to hire an attorney other than me then I’m not making money either, yet that does not bother me. What bothers estate planning attorneys about store bought fill in the blanks wills and trusts, or software, or internet Wills, is that they often end in disaster. Virtually every estate planning attorney has more than one story about a bereaved family finding out after their loved one’s death that the do it yourself Will did not accomplish what it was supposed to, or wasn’t properly executed and therefore was invalid.
My main concerns with do it yourself estate planning are as follows:
- People are choosing what they need without professional advice. Someone will get into their mind that they “need a trust” and will go onto the internet and order one. It would be like if I woke up one morning with a stomachache and without going to the doctor decided that I needed an appendectomy. A person needs to sit with an expert to decide whether they need a trust, and what kind, and what it should say. And even if the person does need a trust, it still has to be properly funded, something a form can’t do.
- The “one size fits all” problem. A fill in the blank form bought in a store or ordered over the internet is not going to be custom tailored to an individual client’s needs. Every person has their own special set of circumstances, whether it is the type of assets they own, or special provisions that might be necessary for their children. Just one example, if you are in Florida and you own a home, the rules regarding how you may devise your Homestead are extremely complex. No preset form, or company in another state can possibly get it right, because there are too many variables, and every situation is different.
- The Law is constantly changing. How often are these forms updated to reflect changes in the law? Can you have confidence that the document is valid for your state?
- People who buy premade Wills often do not execute them properly causing the Will to be invalid. The law regarding the execution of Wills is very strict and unforgiving. In Florida, a testator must execute his Will in the presence of two witnesses who also must sign in the presence of each other. There are numerous cases of Wills being declared invalid because the signing requirements were not adhered to. If a Will is invalid then the estate passes through intestacy. An estate planning attorney is likely to have presided over the execution of hundreds, if not thousands, of Wills and will have a procedure to ensure that each and every Will is properly executed.
I understand why people buy store bought Wills or software instead of going to an attorney. Money and time. They see an attorney as far too expensive, and probably don’t really understand what an estate planning attorney truly does. They think the $39.95 form or $49.95 software will be “good enough.”
If time and money are the motivating factors, then you should know that it is much more expensive and it takes a lot longer to fix the mistakes after you are dead than it would have been to do it right the first time. A Probate, especially one complicated by a Will with errors or that is invalid, will most likely cost at least 3 times as much as proper planning would have.
I’m not saying that the software, forms, or internet wills will always be invalid. I’m just saying think of your family, and be careful. Like anything else, there is no substitute for personalized one on one advice.