As I was speaking to a good friend who lives out of state this week we were discussing estate planning; the purpose of various documents, costs, etc. However, because I’m not licensed in the state she lives in, the best advice I could give her was to talk to a local attorney who focuses on estate planning. Unfortunately, time was a factor here, and due to other factors, my friend felt an online service with estate planning forms was the best option. Now, in her situation, it really wasn’t that unfortunate, nothing’s come about (and hopefully won’t) that has caused her to need the documents. But it leads to an issue I’ve heard often.
I’ve been asked many times about inexpensive options regarding estate planning. Specifically, people love the idea of an online site that provides a do-it-yourself form with filling in the blanks. It’s normally, quick, easy, and extremely inexpensive when you’re comparing these forms to a real life attorney. However, as expected, the idea of these sites really does make me cringe.
There are many reasons I’m not a fan of online legal sites, but my top concern is that specifically with estate planning documents, the documents don’t go into effect until it’s too late to change them. For example, if you use a power of attorney from a website, and later go to use it because the person it was created for is unable to make decisions, and then find out its unenforceable, you’re stuck without a power of attorney because the creator is unable to make decisions! So if you use an online site without the benefit of an attorney to catch mistakes, you might not know until it’s very costly and time consuming to fix.
In addition, if there is a mistake a website doesn’t take the liability of that mistake, while many attorneys carry malpractice insurance and provide an additional level of assurance if that mistake does happen (though the chances are much less to begin with).
Another major concern I have with executing estate planning documents without an attorney regards the very specific requirements and formalities execution normally entails. There are requirements as to how many witnesses, who may not sign as a witness, notary publics, who must be present when signing, the language used regarding notaries and witnesses, and many, many more depending on the document. While the online sites give instructions on how to execute a document, they cannot physically be present when executing them the same way an attorney can.
Along with this, estate planning documents are notorious for legalese: the legal language rarely decipherable, let alone understandable, outside of the legal profession. How is anyone supposed to fill out a document themselves, when it’s written in a different language? Finally, attorneys have the benefit of working with numerous clients and identifying issues many others would never recognize. As I was reminded multiple times throughout the three years of law school, law school teaches a person “to think like a lawyer.” I don’t know how to think like a car mechanic, but I do know how to think like an attorney and many times I’m able to bring up issues my clients are grateful to talk about, but have not though about before.
Often I hear the joke that a person doesn’t have an estate to plan (I’ll explain why this is incorrect at a different time). But if you’re concerned about assets and well-being enough to worry about any estate planning documents at all, you have plenty of assets to at least talk to an attorney! Many attorneys, including myself, offer free consultations and I would be more than happy to talk to anyone regarding an online will, power of attorney, or other estate planning document to make sure it’s sufficient. If you know of any family or friends who have taken the online form approach, please pass along this information!