You can find dozens of websites that let you prepare a variety of estate planning documents all on your own, for little to no cost, without paying a lawyer to help. However, you need to understand how these services can backfire on you and your family. Creating your will online without a lawyer’s guidance, can be a catastrophe, and can even be worse for your family than if you’d done nothing at all.
Know what's possible—and what's not
A great way to start educating yourself is by watching this training video by family financial and legal expert Ali Katz. This free, one-hour training clarifies what you can do yourself online, and when you really need a lawyer’s support. The training also gives you access to an online tool you can use to create an inventory of all your assets, which is critically important to leave to your loved ones, no matter how much or little you have to pass on.
If you’re able to create your will online, please be aware of these red flags.
01 - Your online will may not keep your family out of court
While a will is a necessary element of most estate plans, it’s typically just one small part of an integrated plan. A will by itself won’t keep your family out of court. In order for assets covered by your will to be transferred to your beneficiaries, your will must first pass through probate.
During probate, the court oversees the administration of your estate and assets, ensuring your assets are distributed according to your wishes, while ensuring any creditors of your estate are paid, and managing any disputes that arise. Probate is lengthy, expensive, and open to the public.
To avoid probate and keep your assets out of court, your will needs to be combined with other planning documents and important conversations as well. These documents include a properly drafted and funded trust, up-to-date and effective beneficiary designations, and you’ll also need to have conversations with family to ensure they won’t end up in conflict due to your lack of preparation.
Beneficiary designations and trust planning can be complex, and if you have assets that would otherwise pass through the court process, it may be difficult to ensure you are making all the right choices for your loved ones and your assets using an online document service.
02 - Your online will's execution may not be lawfully valid
If you do not have assets that would go through the court process, and you want to create an online will simply to name someone as your executor in the event of your death, you’ll want to make sure your online will is legally valid. Each state has specific laws stipulating how a will must be documented and signed to be legally binding. If you fail to execute your will in accordance with these laws, the court can deem your will legally invalid.
If the court deems your will invalid, it’s as if the document never existed. In that case, a judge would name the person it considers is best to handle your estate, and your assets would be distributed according to state intestacy laws, which typically give priority to your closest living blood relatives.
03 - Your online will may not properly name an executor
An executor, also called a “personal representative,” is the person responsible for carrying out the instructions in your will. Your executor is typically named in your will and appointed by the court to locate and manage your assets, pay any outstanding debts and taxes you owe, and distribute your remaining assets to your beneficiaries.
If you don’t name an executor in your will, or the person you choose is determined to be unfit, the court will appoint an executor for you. As an example of how things can go wrong here, one common situation in which a named executor can be determined to be unfit is if your will does not waive the requirement for the executor to obtain a bond, and your named executor cannot qualify for a bond. This is a frequent mistake made by those who create their own will online.
If you’re unaware of these requirements when creating your online will, your chosen executor could be deemed unfit, leaving the choice up to the court.
The Professional Support You Deserve
Creating your will online without a lawyer’s help is a huge gamble, and if you get it wrong, it can cost your family a lot more than money. Rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all document service, meet with us to create your will and other estate planning documents. This is why we recommend that you begin your estate planning by meeting with us.
Our Life & Legacy Planning Process is specifically designed to put in place the right combination of planning solutions to fit with your unique asset profile, family dynamics, budget, as well as your overall goals and desires. Until then, if you need to get your plan started or need us to review your existing documents, contact us today.
This article is a service of Desmond Law, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session at no charge.