These days there are several websites offering online do-it-yourself legal forms that promise easy, inexpensive legal forms. One such website says “there’s no easier way.” However, the biggest problem with these sites is they cannot provide any advice. When it comes to estate planning or business formation, there is a lot more involved than just filling out forms.
Details Matter. In estate planning, and any other legal documents for that matter, the details matter. Seemingly minor things like whether a document is dated, who witnessed the document, notarization requirements, and many other factors can be enough to void a document if challenged. There are specific laws governing the execution of each type of document and if not done correctly, the legal form itself may be useless when it comes time to actually use it. Every state has its own requirements on what makes a document valid.
In addition to the execution requirements, details matter when it comes to the plan itself. The advice of a lawyer can help you make the best decision for you and your family. Although forms can be a starting point for many types of documents, lawyers aren’t just form fillers. Lawyers have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly and will help you consider how to plan for your specific situation and advise you based on their knowledge and experience. They will consider things like how assets are titled, family dynamics, second marriages, step-children, out-of-state assets, your goals for the family after you are gone, any minor children, disabled beneficiaries, nursing home considerations, etc. These details are easily missed in a DIY Will form.
Cost Factor. Of course a major reason the online form sites are popular are because they are “cheaper” than working with a lawyer. On the surface that may be true, but unintended consequences can end up costing your beneficiaries a lot more. For example, the Will form itself may only have cost $99, but relying on a Will means a probate proceeding could be needed after you die. The probate proceeding would likely cost several thousands of dollars. While sometimes probate is required or even preferred in some situations, it is often possible to avoid probate by using a trust or appropriate beneficiary designations. Similarly, not thinking through who your decision-makers are after you die or unclear distribution provisions in documents can result in beneficiaries arguing about it in court and ultimately costing thousands of dollars in the process. Of course, no one knows the future and we cannot avoid every single conflict or contingency, but the goal of a good estate plan is to try to reduce the conflict (and costs) down the road as much as possible.
It’s Easier Than You May Think. I hear from so many people who have put off meeting with a lawyer because they don’t know what to expect or were intimidated by the process, or didn’t think they had all of the answers up front. The good news is you don’t need to have all of the answers before you meet! The lawyer’s job is to walk you through the process and to help you make those decisions, and hopefully does so in a way that is not intimidating or pressuring. Of course working with a lawyer is not as easy as filling in forms online (it does require some human interaction!), but a lawyer shouldn’t make the process more difficult or intimidating for you and in the end you should feel confident things were done correctly for your personal situation.
The information in this blog is specific to Wisconsin law and general in nature. It is not intended to be legal or tax advice.