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The problem with do-it-yourself wills

We live in a world with easy access to an abundance of information accessible at the touch of a mouse or a few clicks on our smartphones. Do-it-yourself forms are available for less than $100 for all kinds of legal issues like forming a business, real estate transactions and estate planning.

I understand why do-it-yourself wills appeal to the everyday consumer. You can complete them from the comfort of your home in your pajamas while watching your favorite sitcom reruns. The price is reasonable and clearly posted.

The problem with these DIY forms is that you get what you pay for. When dealing with a legal matter on your own, you don’t know what you don’t know. When you hire a lawyer, you’re not just paying for the time he or she spends on your case.  You’re paying for years of experience and advice specifically tailored to your unique needs and goals.

I recently had an experience with a client (let’s call her “Jane”) who had used one of these sites to complete her last will and testament after she was diagnosed with late-stage cancer several months ago. She recently suffered a sharp decline in her health and decided to have that will professionally reviewed.

I spoke with Jane about the assets in her estate and how she would like those assets distributed to her closest friends and family members. Jane is in her late 30s. She’s not married and she doesn’t have any children. She wanted to leave specific jewelry and furniture to some friends and wanted the rest of her estate to be distributed to her nieces and nephews equally.

I took a look at her DIY will toward the end of our meeting. There were a couple glaring issues. There was no provision that covered the “residuary estate,” any other assets not specifically named in the will. And it didn’t name a backup personal representative in the event her first choice is unable or unwilling to serve in that role.

But the biggest problem was how her retirement account (valued at several hundred thousand dollars) was treated. The DIY will stated that her nieces and nephews would split the retirement account equally. Sounds good, right? The problem is that life insurance and retirement plans generally pass “outside of the will” to a named beneficiary. After doing some research for Jane, I found that her mother was the named beneficiary on both her life insurance policy and her retirement accounts — something she probably put in place when she was much younger and had just begun working.

If Jane had passed away before her meeting at my office, her retirement account would have passed to her mother and her nieces and nephews would have inherited nothing, completely derailing Jane’s wishes. 

These DIY legal websites cannot provide any legal advice. Their disclaimers generally state that they do not review documents for legal sufficiency and that they are not liable for any loss related to the use of their cookie-cutter forms.

Before consumers get sucked into the low cost and convenience of LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer, they should consider the importance of their estate. The cost of estate planning is usually less than 1 percent of an entire estate. When we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars (which is usually the case when the there is a paid-off home), it’s worth it to have your estate planning done right. A competent estate planning lawyer can help ensure your wishes are carried out with as little hassle as possible for your family members.

Consumers care about convenience and cost; they are only using these sites to avoid paying exorbitant legal fees. Something I do to assuage potential clients’ anxiety of unknown legal fees is post my rates for the typical case. While some lawyers have been critical of my transparency, clients appreciate the accessibility of information regarding my flat fees. It’s important that we, as legal professionals, change the discourse over obtaining legal services to convert the would-be consumer of DIY legal forms into our clients.

One comment

  1. I simply don’t believe that an online interactive service like RocketLawyer, LegalZoom or USLegalWills.com would allow a Will to be created without a residuary clause. It’s impossible to do this using one of these services.

    I can understand if the client used a blank form Will kit…these are terrible. But online interactive services do not allow Wills to be created without a residuary clause.