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Someone completing a do-it-yourself estate plan on the internet

5 reasons a DIY online estate plan is a risky proposition

by Amelia Burke | Contributor
March 20, 2022

Websites that offer do-it-yourself wills and other estate planning documents continue to grow in popularity because they are inexpensive and easy to use. These service providers advertise themselves as a less costly, more convenient replacement to experienced estate planning attorneys. What they fail to publicize are the many disadvantages of DIY estate plans. These plans often include incomplete or invalid documents that create more problems than they solve.

A DIY estate plan can't replace the knowledge and expertise of a Legacy Plan Network Attorney, and it's almost never worth the risk. Below are five reasons you should avoid making an online DIY estate plan.

1. You don't know what you don't know.

The internet tends to give people a false sense of confidence. All you have to do is ask Google a question, and hundreds of websites will immediately pop up, hopefully holding the answer. However, it would be a grave mistake to think that this resource replaces an estate planning attorney. Unless you are a lawyer, do you really know what questions to ask yourself and all the contingencies you need to explore?

Each state's unique laws surrounding estate planning and probate are much more complicated than most people realize. Attorneys have the experience and training necessary to avoid pitfalls and recognize red flags.

Example

Bob, a single father of a 21-year-old daughter, retired to Florida from Chicago. After the move, he decided it was time to make a will. His estate was relatively small and included a bank account with $20,000 and his Florida home, which he planned to leave to his daughter. Bob decided to forgo an attorney, pay a small fee and use an online DIY site.

In one of the very first fill-in-the-blanks, he was instructed to write the name of his executor. He decided to ask Google who he should pick to fulfill this position. Multiple sites came up saying that he should choose someone responsible and trustworthy. Not wanting to put this burden on his young daughter still in college, he decided on his longtime friend and former business partner, Steven, who still was living in Illinois.

Nothing on the DIY site flagged the response or asked where the executor lived. It never crossed his mind that there would be a problem choosing a personal representative who lived out of state. Unknown to Bob, a non-resident of Florida can only serve as the personal representative for a Florida probate estate if related by lineal blood or legally adopted relation of the decedent.

Steven was not qualified to serve as his executor, the probate process was delayed, and his daughter ended up having to pay increased court fees only to have the court appoint her to serve in the role. If Bob had worked with an attorney, this problem could have been avoided.

2. How do you know your will can be able to withstand a court challenge?

During the probate process, unsatisfied beneficiaries and disinherited heirs are allowed to challenge the will's validity. If the challenge is successful, your wishes will not be followed. Instead, your estate will pass in accordance with your state's intestate statute or an earlier will.

In contrast to an online DIY site, an estate planning attorney can anticipate the likely avenues of challenge and confirm that the formal requirements for preparing a will are precisely followed. A lawyer will ensure that a no-contest clause is included, preventing a beneficiary from inheriting anything under the will if they lose a court challenge.

An attorney can also serve as a witness in a court challenge. This is especially helpful if the testator's capacity at the time of signing is in question. Additionally, if the likelihood of a challenge is high, your attorney can assist in drafting a trust that is private and much less susceptible to a challenge.

Example

When Sally's daughter, Kaitlin, was 18, she married an older man who Sally disapproved of. Kaitlin moved across the country, and all communication between the two was completely cut off. Twenty years after their estrangement, Sally drafted a will using an online DIY site. In the will, she listed her two sons as the beneficiaries of her estate. In an attempt to disinherit Kaitlin, she never mentioned her daughter in the will. Sally had no idea that this decision would leave her will open to a court challenge.

After Sally's death, Kaitlin was notified of her mother's death and the will as required under the law. When she realized she was getting nothing, she became furious and challenged the will in court. Because Sally did not mention her daughter anywhere in the will, the court assumed that the omission of the child was an oversight. There was no neutral third party to testify about Sally's true intentions. A portion of Sally's estate was awarded to her daughter because her wishes were not made perfectly clear.

3. Have the laws changed?

The laws relating to estate planning and probate are not static. New laws get passed, and older laws can be reinterpreted by the courts. The constant tax law changes, in particular, can have a drastic effect on estate planning.

If you use a DIY service provider to draft your estate plan, there is a chance that you will prepare documents based on recently changed laws. Furthermore, if your DIY estate planning documents become outdated, no one will contact you to let you know.

On the other hand, Legacy Plan Network Attorneys are knowledgeable about upcoming changes and are informed about potential legislation. No one can predict the future, but if there is a change in the laws that affect your estate plan, an attorney can reach out to update your documents.

Example

a disappointed older couple filling out a DIY estate plan on the computer

In 2008, Peter used an online DIY site to create his estate plan. At the time, the value of his estate was approximately $4 million, and the federal estate tax exemption was $2 million. In an effort to avoid paying estate tax, Peter decided to create an irrevocable trust and fund it with his real estate property, which included the bulk of his estate.

When he died in 2018, the value of his estate had grown to $10 million. However, the estate tax exemption that year had also risen to $11.18 million. Even if his assets were not in an irrevocable trust, they could have been transferred without being subject to estate tax.

Peter was unaware of this change, and his property remained in the trust. Therefore, it did not get a step-up in basis that would have readjusted the property's value to its market value at the time of Peter's death. Instead, the basis of the trust assets remained at the value of the property when Peter initially purchased it, and his children owed considerable income taxes when they sold the property. If the property had passed through the estate, his children would have paid significantly less in taxes.

A qualified Legacy Plan Network Attorney could have structured a plan that provided flexibility to respond to tax law changes. Peter would have realized the maximum potential tax savings if he had worked together with a professional.

4. A DIY site is not an attorney.

DIY estate plan sites are designed to serve the most people possible. Most create their documents based on a standard questionnaire, which is hardly a personalized endeavor. They rely on a standardized list of assumptions that do not consider each individual's unique needs. A cookie-cooker approach will not work for those with special circumstances or complicated situations.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all estate plan. A comprehensive estate plan requires the advice and guidance of an attorney. Lawyers do more than provide technical guidance. They will analyze your specific situation and help you make personalized decisions about choices that may, on their face, appear simple but are actually complex.

Example

Overwhelmed with the costs of caring for her daughter with severe mental disabilities but understanding that creating an estate plan was necessary, Rosemary decided to save money and use an online DIY estate planning service provider. She thought a simple DIY will would suffice because she was going to leave everything to her daughter.

Unfortunately, her decision not to consult an attorney ended up placing her daughter in a highly vulnerable position. Not only did the will fail to include specific instructions regarding the care that her daughter needed and finances available to assist with that care, but it also disqualified her daughter from the government benefits that she relied upon. The inheritance immediately disqualified her from Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. With complete control over her inheritance and a lack of financial understanding and responsibility, the daughter quickly squandered the assets that her mother left her.

An attorney would have recognized Rosemary's unique needs and crafted a specialized special needs trust to include in the estate plan. Her daughter would have been able to maintain her eligibility for government benefits, and Rosemary could have ensured that the trust assets were used as she intended. Her daughter's future would have been protected.

5. Where's the peace of mind?

When you create an online DIY will, you might save money, but how assured can you be that everything will work out in the end? With no professional advice, all you can do is hope for the best. You have no assurance that you drafted effective, legally valid documents.

One of the primary purposes of probate laws is to prevent fraud. With this in mind, the court will often disregard an entire will or trust if you make the slightest mistake. The laws are not flexible, and the critical test of your estate plan will not happen until after your death. Once it is realized that your estate plan will not hold up to the law's strict requirements or the results are different from what you intended, you will not be around to fix any mistakes. There is nothing your loved ones can do to fix your mistakes.

In contrast, by working with a Legacy Plan Network Attorney, you can have peace of mind that an experienced professional has helped you create a legally solid estate plan tailored to your individual needs. A comprehensive estate plan is truly one of the best gifts you can leave to your loved ones.

Example

Malik recently contacted a Legacy Plan Network Attorney asking them to review a DIY estate plan he created a few years ago. Because a professional hadn't checked the documents, he was worried about whether he had done them correctly. After looking over the will, the attorney quickly realized that Malik did not have the correct number of witness signatures required under the law, and his wishes for the distribution of his property were not clear. The will had to be redone for it to be valid and enforceable. Thankfully, all the mistakes made were able to be fixed, and together with Legacy Assurance Plan, Malik created a better, more comprehensive estate plan.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at legacyassuranceplan.com.

Phone - 844.445.3422
Email - info@legacyassuranceplan.com
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