Understandably, many people look to cut costs by completing do it yourself legal documents, including wills. Unfortunately, online services do not measure up when compared to working with a professional estate planning lawyer.
With some DIY legal documents, if you make a mistake, there may be opportunities to fix any errors. With a last will and testament, the document may be left in a filing cabinet or security deposit box for a decade or more and only uncovered after the drafter has passed, which is far too late to correct any mistakes. Instead of saving money, you may cost your family thousands of dollars in court while trying to sort out your estate.
Here are some common mistakes I see in DIY wills that should serve as a cautionary tale about why these services that sound too good to be true usually are.
Confusing or Complicated Language
We lawyers spend good money learning how to fill documents with legalese. DIY wills are no different. Understanding all of the words in a DIY will may be a huge challenge. There are Latin phrases and terms of art used that neither you nor your loved ones will recognize. I also have seen DIY wills that say, for example, that John will receive $100,000. Later in the document, it will say John will get ½ of the estate. Question: does John receive $100,000 or ½ of the estate? Any ambiguity in a DIY will may result in your family spending the money you saved on the DIY fighting to get clarification of what the document says.
Every document I prepare is in plain, easy to understand English. I believe this is particularly important with estate planning documents, which are being reviewed during very stressful times in your family’s life. By preparing a straightforward document, you are giving your family an easy way to follow your wishes.
Improperly Signing the Document
One of the biggest problems I see from DIY wills is that the person preparing the document fails to go through the proper steps to ensure that their will is valid.
In Arizona, a will has to be prepared by someone over the age of 18, of sound mind and signed by two witnesses and a notary public. While Arizona recognizes holographic wills – wills that are entirely handwritten and signed by the writer – it is easy for these documents to be challenged.
Even if the original will is signed correctly, people often add addendums, known as codicils. In order for a codicil to be effective, it must also be signed by two witnesses and notarized. Unfortunately, many people do not realize this requirement and may add addendums to their will in a casual manner. As a result, it can often be difficult to decipher which portions of the will are valid, and which are not.
Instead, it is better to have your will, as well as any changes, professionally drafted in order to make sure that it is executed correctly and any codicils you wish to add are not contradictory.
Failing to Properly Care for Your Minor Children
In Arizona, a last will is the only document where you name guardians for your minor children if something should happen to you. Parents should and usually do put great care into considering who will take care of their children if they are no longer able to. This is something you absolutely do not want to mess up.
The information gathering done to make the DIY last will may not be complete. It may not ask you to consider backup guardians if your first choice is unavailable. If you are divorced, it may not ask you to give reasons why your ex should not be the guardian. What if your guardians divorce–do you want one to continue as guardian or should your children move to your backup guardians? What if your guardians are out of the country? These are all very important considerations that are often not a part of a DIY will.
You should also know that minor children are not allowed to inherit property in Arizona outright until age 18. The DIY will needs to be very specific about what should be done with money intended for minor children. There is often not a one size fits all solution. DIY wills often give you very few options–you are unique; your documents should be as well.
Making Provisions for Your Pets
An animal, no matter how loved, is not legally able to own property because they are often considered to be the property of their owner. However, it is possible to ensure that your beloved furry critters will be taken care of after you pass. Taking care of your pets is not one-size-fits-all. A DIY last will may not address who should take care of your pets, should that individual receive money for caring for your pets, what if that individual does not want to care for your pets, are there rescues that can be a backup for caring for your pets? All of these factors need to be considered for your unique situation, not a template situation.
Treating Your DIY Will as Your Only Estate Planning Document
Finally, a last will and testament serves two purposes:
- It lets you distribute your assets after you pass, and
- It lets you designate guardians for your minor children after you pass.
A last will and testament does not
- Give anyone the authority to make financial decisions about your estate while you are alive
- Let anybody make medical decisions for you, including the decision to take you off of life support.
In order to give someone the legal authority to make these decisions, you will need to prepare additional estate planning documents, including powers of attorney and a medical living will. Unfortunately, many people do not realize the importance of preparing these extra documents until it’s too late.
Talking to an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a will or a revocable living trust is a better choice for your family is extremely important. It may well be that a last will cannot address some of the issues discussed in this blog as well as a revocable living trust can.
Making Your Life Fit into a Template
Online legal document writing services such as Rocket Lawyer or LegalZoom use standard templates that are designed as a one-size-fits-all approach. These documents have fill in the blank spaces where you fill in your own details but the documents may not consider all of the details of your life.
My approach is the exact opposite. I believe that estate planning should fit your life, not the other way around. I believe in holistic estate planning, working with my clients to ensure that they understand how these documents will fit into their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Talking together about your children who have different money management skills, great or awful spouses, an estranged family member, how to help your aging family members, and general family dynamics is essential to putting together documents that will be as effective as possible. This is impossible in the DIY world.
Each document in an estate plan does a different job. It is very important that each document, whether it be a power of attorney, will or trust, is tailored to your needs.
Estate planning is a gift you can give to your family by taking care of as many details as possible while you still can. You owe it to your family to prepare documents that take into account how your family will be impacted.
This article is for informational purposes and does not provide legal advice. If you have questions regarding estate planning or want to speak with me regarding your last will and testament, please contact me today.