In a modern world, it is increasingly simple to turn to the Internet for everything from specialized tools to toothpaste. In recent years, several companies have released online estate planning forms for purchase. These programs allow users to create DIY wills, powers of attorney, and other estate planning documents. But are online estate planning forms good enough? Or are they missing something an experienced estate planning attorney can provide?
In this blog post, I will review the limitations of online estate planning forms. I will explain how an estate planning attorney can help guide you through difficult decisions, ensure all your estate planning needs are covered, and provide customized options that meet your end-of-life wishes.
Nolo, LegalZoom, and other online legal form companies take advantage of users' desire to save money and time in their estate planning process. They capitalize on the fact that talking to a relative stranger about your end-of-life decisions is uncomfortable. The comparative up-front cost and ability to fill out estate planning documents in the privacy of your own home can make online tools tempting. However, these temptations are only beneficial in the short run. The limitations of online estate planning forms mean that, except in the most straightforward family situations, using these tools could end up costing your beneficiaries far more, and could expose your private details in open court, rather than the confidentiality of an attorney-client relationship.
Online estate planning forms build your will and other paperwork based on a discrete list of questions. But often the answers to those questions raise their own concerns. For example, if you want to leave your assets to your children, the form will likely ask for the names of each child, and possibly their ages. However, the concrete nature of these questionnaires do not leave space to ask what to do if the children are still minors at the time of your death, or how old is old enough for your children to receive their inheritances. Online forms also do not discuss the possibility of a child being disabled in some way, and the negative impact receiving an inheritance would have on certain government benefits they may be receiving.
An in-person interview with an experienced estate planning attorney provides the space for you to explore all the details of your family circumstances. Your lawyer will be able to ask the right questions and craft documents that truly protect your interests, rather than simply adding the correct names to a list.
Many online estate planning forms also skip a crucial step to the estate planning process: the personal assessment. These are questions about a person's mental capacity or understanding of his or her assets or natural beneficiaries. When an estate planning attorney performs this assessment, it ensures that would-be beneficiaries cannot challenge the validity of the estate plan after the person's death.
No matter how in-depth the questions are on an online estate planning form site, it is still up to you to come up with the right answer. Choosing beneficiaries, executors, and especially trustees takes more than a quick glance at the family tree. You need to give thoughtful consideration to the personalities involved, and what it will take to do the jobs assigned. An estate planning attorney can help guide you to the right answers to these questions. Your lawyer will explain what is involved in each role and what personality types can do the job well.
An experienced estate planning lawyer can also help you avoid answers to typical questions that could have serious unintended consequences. For example, leaving everything to your husband or wife could cause your children to pay more in estate taxes than if you distribute part of the estate on the first spouse's death. In some families, simply leaving assets to your "children" could accidentally exclude step-children or other heirs that are part of your family, but not legally your beneficiaries.
The general principles of estate planning may be similar across the United States, but each state's estate and probate code is slightly different. This includes everything from Michigan's specific rules related to special needs trusts to understanding the consequences of state and local estate taxes. The online estate planning websites can be accessed across the country, and the world. They provide generalized information, rather than state-specific solutions, for your estate plan.
Everyone can benefit from the personalized advice and counseling of an estate planning attorney. However, certain circumstances make the limitations of online estate planning forms particularly dangerous. You shouldn't cut corners if you:
If you fall into any of these categories, there are special estate planning concerns that you should discuss with an experienced attorney to make sure your interests are protected and your loved ones are provided for.
Rebecca J. Braun, J.D., is an estate planning and elder law attorney for Mobile Legal Services, PPLC, in Southeast Michigan. She can help with estate planning and trust administration. She will travel to clients, free of charge, in Livingston, Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne, and Southern Macomb Counties. Contact us for an initial assessment.