If you're ever thought about creating your own will, trust, or power of attorney using forms downloaded from the internet, you may want to think again. An attorney at a Life Care Planning Law Firm explains why.
Do you know someone who used documents downloaded from an online site to prepare their own wills or powers of attorney, or to set up trusts?
You probably do. Maybe someone you know has bragged about using these forms to draft their own estate planning documents instead of seeing an attorney.
Companies that sell these online forms are saturating the airwaves, social media, and the internet with their ads. Their pitch is compelling. Download documents. Fill them out. Get them notarized. That’s it.
Grady H. Williams, Jr., LL.M., an estate planning attorney who runs a Life Care Planning Law Firm with five office in north Florida, sees people like this all the time. But they’re usually not boasting about what a deal they got. They are often the heirs of those who used an online service to craft their own documents. “I see people every day who are trying to solve the unintended problems caused by well-meaning but ultimately insufficient online legal documents,” said Williams. “As Abe Lincoln said, ‘Anyone who represents himself has a fool for a client.’”
If you’re thinking of going it alone, what do you need to keep in mind? Williams offers three tips.
There is no “one size fits all” in estate planning.
Estate planning is far more complicated than it is portrayed on online legal form sites. The variations in requirements from state to state are so great that it takes specialists in estate planning law to stay abreast of the many changes. “Laws governing estate planning date back to the 1500s and are unbelievably complex,” said Williams, noting that most estate plans require a variety of elements such as Living Trusts, Durable Powers of Attorney, Healthcare Surrogate Designations, HIPAA Release documents, and beneficiary changes. “If the forms you download from the internet don’t include the specific provisions necessary to ensure the successful protection and transfer of your assets, you will end up in court.”
You don’t know what you don’t know.
When people download one-size-fits all documents from the internet, they aren’t thinking about the “what ifs.” Most people don’t know to ask questions like, Will my document hold up in court? What if the document is contested? What if I unintentionally disinherit someone, delay the distribution of assets, or my heirs end up in probate court or get an unexpected tax bill? “You won’t know that your self-made document doesn’t work until you or your heirs find out that it doesn’t,” Williams cautioned. “The cost of attorney-prepared legal documents typically pales in comparison to the cost of hiring an attorney after the fact to dig you out of the mess.”
Don’t expect guarantees.
The so-called legal service websites aren’t lawyers. They’re businesses offering next to nothing in the way of guarantees. Legal Zoom, one of the most popular online document sources, has the following disclaimer on its website:
We are not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.
To make matters worse, many jurisdictions do not recognize a "legal document assistant" who may have prepared your online form, as a licensed professional competent to prepare legal documents. “Unfortunately, most people don’t find this out until it’s too late,” added Williams.