As an estate planning attorney, I am frequently asked (usually by social acquaintances) whether a “simple” will or other document generated by one of the DIY legal document websites isn't “just fine” or “good enough”. The answer I give is often some variation on the “would you do your own dental work?” response, as you might expect. But here are a few reasons why:
- Anyone with minor children needs to be especially attentive to detail when establishing even the most simple estate plan. (Not that anything is simple when children are involved.) Aside from providing for the children's guardianship in the event both parents pass away, a will also needs to set up the right vehicles to hold property for a child until he or she reaches adulthood. The plan needs to be clear, meet all the child's possible needs, place decisionmaking responsibility in the right hands, and most importantly be as free of administrative hassles as possible. Errors in drafting could result in unforeseen complications requiring ongoing court involvement and/or unnecessary expense, or fail to meet all of a parent's expectations (limiting the use of funds for a child's benefit to a more narrow - or expansive - definition than the parent would have wanted, for example).
- Program-generated wills are about as customized as t-shirts at Target. While some people may not have a lot of complexity in their lives, most of the people I meet as clients and as friends aren't perfectly S/M/L/XL. What if you are divorced? Have a blended family? A family member who you want to get “everything”, or nothing? Own an ongoing business? Aren't married to your life partner? Or love someone who needs to be protected, whether from themselves or others?
- DIY programs often result in documents that get partway there, but then fall just a wee bit (or more) short. For example, I have seen wills that do not include any provision regarding what is to happen if none of the named beneficiaries survive. I have also seen trust documents (single page, 6-point font) that recite an assortment of administrative powers and obligations of the trustee, but have no provisions at all for distributing funds to anyone.
- Drafting a legal document properly is only a small part of the process of establishing an estate plan. Putting that document to work - the right way – requires a significant amount of expertise and guidance that you aren't going to get from a blank office supply form, or your faceless friend the Internet. The more property is involved, the more assistance you need. And as time passes, laws will change, as will aspects of your personal life. A professional will help you stay on top of how life and the law impact each other to ensure your plan still makes sense.
Horror stories abound about estate plans gone awry when individuals try to do their own legal work. (Google “dangers of do it yourself wills and trusts” and you'll get almost 4 million hits.) These stories range from estate plans that didn't accomplish everything the settlor intended, to scenarios in which the plan did everything the settlor most wanted to avoid. These are obviously the worst-case examples, but they happen to people of both significant and modest means, and the consequences can be dire in either case.
Often, the most valued benefit of a properly drafted estate plan is the most intangible one: peace of mind. Every caring person wants and needs to know that they have done everything they can to ensure that those they love will be okay if the worst happens. You can't buy that peace of mind online for $19.99.