On the short list of why you need a will: your family won’t know how you wanted to distribute your possessions or what kind of funeral you wanted. They may also fight over the distribution. The cost in legal fees and taxes will also take a big bite out of any remaining assets.
Writing down a list of your assets and thinking about how you want them distributed among your heirs is the first step in having an estate plan prepared. Everyone should have a will, regardless of whether their estate is big or small, or if they are in their twenties or seventies.
A U.S. News & World Report’s article asks “Should You Make a Free Will Online?” According to the article, before writing your will or using an online service, you need to know the legal requirements in your area. In many instances, this is best left to a legal professional in your state.
There are plenty of online tools that will help you create a will. However, before clicking on a website’s promise, you need to evaluate the available options. There are three main ways to write a will:
- Do it yourself;
- Use a do-it-yourself program; or
- Get help from a qualified estate planning attorney.
If you draft a will on your own, you’ll need to be absolutely certain you understand all of the applicable probate, tax and property laws. People who’ve written their own wills are usually those with very basic estates, like a person with a single piece of real estate and a small amount in investments.
If you use an online service, you’ll have access to software that walks you through the process. In this case, you’ll need to be sure that the software company has all the applicable laws covered, as required for your state. You also want a program that lets you make updates later, if your situation changes.
However, if you engage the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to have an expert help you think through the details. This result will be a well-drafted will. Yes, it will cost a bit more, but for many situations—like those with blended families, complex investments, or property in several states—it’s worth it.
Remember that the probate laws can vary widely from state to state. For example, the basic form requirements may allow a handwritten will in some states, but in other states the will must be typewritten. Some states require only two witnesses, and others require that the will be witnessed, notarized and typed.
If you have a larger estate or heirs with medical conditions, it may be wise to work with an attorney who can counsel you on the best solutions for your situation. For example, if you have a child with special needs receiving government benefits, you should have an attorney create a trust so their inheritance doesn’t negatively impact their benefits.
You should also use an attorney if you want to reduce your exposure to probate fees. Some people transfer their assets into a revocable living trust, so they are not subject to probate fees. An online service can’t give you this type of attention or personalized service.
The problem with online will services is that families are complex, and estate plans require more than a simple will. An estate plan includes a plan for your entire estate and often, tax planning. You’ll also need to have Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney and other important documents created. An experienced estate planning attorney will look at the larger picture and talk with you about your concerns and what kind of a legacy you want to leave behind. If you have minor children, you’ll need to name guardians for them and identify someone who will be in charge of the resources that are left for their care. You’ll also need to be sure that your assets are titled properly and that any trusts that may be created are funded. What if there are questions about eligibility for Medicaid?
A face-to-face meeting with an estate planning attorney addresses your family and your entire life. That may be something that an online service will provide in the future, but for right now, stick with a live lawyer.
Reference: U.S. News & World Report (January 9, 2019) “Should You Make a Free Will Online?”