In theory, the idea of using an online “automated” service to draft your will sounds wonderful. These services are marketed as fast, easy and affordable. We are all short on time and you may think that drafting a will from your laptop while sitting on the couch is far easier than hiring an attorney to do it for you. Keep in mind, you will do this once in your lifetime: Do you really want to learn an entire area of law, just for this one moment in time?
Since I do this for a living, I decided to take some online will services for a test drive. You all know the perks of creating an online will. Here are the problems:
Little Guidance: Where do you get help?
Many questions come up during the process, where people benefit from the experience of the lawyer.
Questions such as:
- What is the difference between a guardian and an executor?
- An executor and a beneficiary?
- Who makes a good guardian or executor?
Users can research these differences, so there is the possibility that users will learn that a guardian is someone who cares for minor children, an executor (aka “personal representative”) is someone who distributes all of your property after you die, and that a beneficiary need not do anything except receive the property the executor gives them. Essentially, guardians and executors have jobs to do and beneficiaries merely inherit.
Zero Legal Advice: What you don’t know might cost you.
Every state is different, and many people have unique situations and concerns. Users miss an opportunity for a personal review of their situation and a personal recommended course of action to achieve their goals.
For example, users who live in states with estate taxes may make a costly mistake by not getting legal advice on whether they should do some tax planning. In Massachusetts, a thoughtful estate plan will cost under $4,000 and can save couples $200,000 in estate taxes.
Specific gifts: User error is likely.
The user has an opportunity to identify who gets particular items, also called a “specific gift.” The user can write whatever they want in this space, and that’s where the problem arises.
If the user’s description is not specific enough, such as “my favorite doll,” it will cause confusion. If you’re specific and the gifts don’t exist at the time of your death, the gift will fail and that beneficiary will get nothing. Ask yourself: Is the purpose of the specific gift to give the beneficiary something of value or something that has particular sentimentality? If it’s to give something of value, and the item is no longer available, then the beneficiary doesn’t receive any value.
I overcome this obstacle by encouraging clients to attach a memorandum listing specific gifts. This memorandum can be edited throughout the years, as specific items come and go, and does not need the signature formalities of editing a will. It is not a legal document, but it directs your personal representative (aka “executor”) to dispose of property according to your wishes.
State-Specific Requirements: Missing standard language.
In Massachusetts, a will should have a provision allowing the personal representative to sell real property. Massachusetts wants this to be explicitly stated, and if it’s not, the personal representative must obtain a license from the Probate and Family Court, which is time-consuming and slows down the distribution of assets to the beneficiaries. Absent an explicit authorization of sale, the personal representative will have to jump through additional hoops in order to sell the deceased person’s home.
Why risk creating additional work for your personal representative or having property not disposed of according to your wishes? I recommend hiring an attorney to draft your will so that you can be sure it is done correctly. The Women’s Bar Foundation Elder Law Project offers free estate planning services for senior citizens. I am also available to assist you in drafting your will and other estate planning documents that are critical to have in place. Here’s some more information about my process and rates.