Here’s a good rule of thumb: do-it-yourself (DIY) is for remodeling and arts and crafts. Sure, there are great DIY magazines out there and DIY products online for you to try. But when it comes to drafting your will or trust, or any other estate planning tool, DIY is not the way to go. DIY wills and trusts can ultimately cause you more problems than you could imagine. Despite the low cost and simplicity of DIY wills, trusts and other online legal forms, there is still a great risk that your document will not operate the way you expect when the time comes. In fact, it may not even be valid.
What a will can do and why it is an important document
The Last Will and Testament is basically a written legal document describing to the people who survive you precisely how you want your estate to be distributed upon your death. Wills are useful estate planning tools because they can be modified or revoked at any time before your death or incapacity. There are many important provisions that you should consider including in your will. However, not all DIY wills can provide the detailed provisions you may need to meet your estate planning goals. The same goes for DIY trusts.
Why substituting DIY wills and trusts for professional estate planning is risky
Before you make the decision to substitute professional legal services with online products such as DIY wills and trusts, you should at least be familiar with the inherent risks in doing so. The primary risk is the likelihood of mistakes. Most of the mistakes that occur with DIY wills and trusts pertain to how the document is executed. Most people do not properly witness the document which will usually make it invalid. In most states a valid will requires two independent witnesses signing at the same time. Another common mistake is not using proper witnesses. In many states, at least one witness must not be a beneficiary. Other common mistakes include misspelled names and vague notations that require interpretation by a court.
The American Bar Association warns against using DIY products
Mistakes like the ones mentioned above can lead to real legal problems that cannot be cured with a few simple corrections. To this end, the American Bar Association has created a Task Force the goal of which is to evaluate the use of certain do-it-yourself products used in estate planning, including DIY wills and trusts. Another major problem with do-it-yourself products is the false sense of security they provide because people are generally unaware of the errors which will potentially invalidate their estate planning documents.
Why you need to consider consulting an experienced estate planning attorney first
While a do-it-yourself will or trust may seem very like an easy and cheap alternative to hiring an estate planning attorney to draft your will or trust, the consequences of executing an invalid estate planning document can be very serious. Not to mention the fact that you may not know anything is wrong until it is too late. Not only do you risk leaving your family confused and in financial and emotional chaos, but your estate could be greatly reduced due to unnecessary legal fees or estate taxes.
Estate planning is definitely not one size fits all
The risk of errors in executing DIY wills and trusts is not the only reason you should be careful using these products. Wills and trusts, as well as nearly all other estate planning tools, are meant to be customized. Wills and trusts are not one size fits all and no two clients have the same type of estate or family dynamic. Therefore, it is important to work with an estate planning attorney who has the knowledge and experience to help you create the perfect plan for you. Otherwise, your estate plan may not be valid or may not work the way you intended.
If you have questions regarding DIY wills or trusts, or any other estate planning needs, contact the Northern California Center for Estate Planning and Elder Law for a consultation, either online or by calling us at (916) 437-3500.