In the time that I have been working as an estate planning attorney, I have seen a lot of online options to set up an estate plan appear. Some of these websites are free, some are services you pay for, but all of them seem to have the same thing in common: Online services are mostly self-help services that help you create your own will or other estate planning documents. While I suspect most of these online services are set up by people who are either attorneys, or have a working knowledge of the law, I am not completely sure that is the case.
Oddly enough, the online services don’t run their documents by me. It is almost as if I do not work for the online services so they don’t feel the need to get my input. And, since I don’t work for them, and they don’t work for me, the online services really don’t care what my opinion is of what they prepare and what documents are provided. I do get a lot of people who will call me and ask me to review their documents that they obtained from an online service. They tell me they want me to just review them and make sure that the documents are OK. I generally respond that I am not in the business of reviewing an online service’s product, and that if I did review the documents it would likely take me a lot longer to review the online documents than to create them on my own. I do not know the content of an online document, nor its source, so I would need to verify everything in the document, instead of knowing what does into my documents. This means I don’t need to review every word of what I write, as I know it is good from the start – I created the documents according to Colorado law, so I know my documents are good.
Online self help legal services have their place, and most of the time the online legal services provide the basics of what most people need. However, online legal services tend to be most suited to simple situations, and they may not account for more complex situations. By working with an estate planning attorney, you can be assured you are receiving a customized, personalized estate plan that addresses your needs and your situation. At the risk of stating the obvious: Everyone is different, and so their estate plan should be a bit different.
Who Does an Online Estate Plan Help?
Online, self-help estate plans are most useful and helpful for people who have basic, or simple situations. If you have one spouse, and children from that one marriage, then all you likely need to do is have a will that leaves everything to a spouse and then to the children when you both die. From what I know, most online services can accomplish this type of plan. You may even be able to set up specific gifts to specific people.
Some online services offer the other documents I find necessary for a complete estate plan: a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney, and a living will / advanced directive. Since I am not familiar with all of the online services, I cannot say what each online service offers, but if one of the documents listed above is missing, then I consider you to have a sizable hole in your estate plan. Each document has its own function and importance, so I recommend everyone have all four of the basic documents: a will, a financial power of attorney, a medical powers of attorney, and a living will / advanced directive. An online service may, or may not, provide these documents.
Online services also have the limitation of the questions they ask. Sometimes the questions asked may not be completely clear to the person trying to use the online service, but an online service does not necessarily have the ability to clarify a question for you, or for you to ask clarifying questions. When I meet with you, I ask you questions, and you can ask me questions. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to get to a place of mutual understanding. I can do that when I meet with you, but an online service of self-help and answering the questions asked by an online service can be dicey. If you don’t understand a question, or answer a question incorrectly because of a misunderstanding, then you may have an error in your estate plan, or the estate plan may turn out incorrectly.
Who Benefits from Using an Estate Planning Attorney to Create an Estate Plan?
To me, the short answer is: everyone. I want estate plans created properly, and I don’t want to have misunderstandings, or mistakes, in an estate plan. Especially if a misunderstanding or mistake could be avoided by talking through a question briefly, I want to make sure the estate plan is right. When I meet with you, I want to understand your situation, present you with options that address what you need, and let you make an informed decision on what to do. I do need to have a profitable business, so I cannot explain all aspects of estate planning due to time constraints. Explaining all of the ins and outs of all the laws involved is outside the scope of what I do, but I want to make sure you understand what you are doing before we complete an estate plan. Sometimes that means I explain in plain English what is written in legal language, and other times it means you are glad I know what to include in the documents without needing to explain every work to you.
That is the problem when people ask me to review whatever they found from an online self-help legal service. They want me to review the documents they received and let them know that everything is OK, without realizing what they are asking. If I were to review a document from an online service, then I need to review every word and every sentence to make sure it all is in compliance with Colorado law. Doing that, without knowing anything about their family, or life, situation, is nearly impossible. I do not have any context for what I am reading, and if a document from an online service does not address some part of their life situation that I am not told, then I cannot say the document is adequate. It may comply with the law, but not address the person’s individual situation, so I often decline to review what someone else has prepared, or to approve someone else’s work. I am sure there are attorneys out there who are willing and able to review online documents, it is just not a service I provide.
What About the Legal Services Provided as an Employee Benefit – are Those Services Useful or Helpful?
Some companies offer a legal services package as an employee benefit. These are legal service plans where a company offers their employees a legal plan similar to an insurance plan. The employee pays a small amount, and then has access to legal services. I know of a couple of these plans, like MetLife / MetLaw, or Hyatt Legal, or even a company called Legal Shield. Some plans allow you access to an attorney who will help you prepare an estate plan, while others are more self-help types of plans for legal services in the estate planning realm. Some plans are a combination of both self-help and attorney based services. If you have such a service offered at your company, then look into what is covered, who is covered, and what type of service you will get. You want your plan to cover what you need, not just what the plan wants to offer. I happen to provide services to those who have the MetLife / MetLaw coverage, so I know that most plans cover attorney based services for those who have that coverage.
What is the Big Benefit of Using an Estate Planning Attorney for Your Estate Plan?
As previously mentioned, using an estate planning attorney allows you access to the attorney’s knowledge and experience, and helps you address your specific needs. Many common situations require different planning, like the following examples:
- If you have minor children – who do you want to raise the children if you are gone? How do you want your money / assets to be used to pay for the children’s lives? When is the right time to give the children money outright?
- If you have been married more than once and have children from different marriages – how do you want to handle money being given to a new spouse? Or to children from a different marriage? How do you handle assets you brought into a second marriage? Are they to be treated differently from those accumulated during the marriage?
- If you had minor children who are now adults – should your estate plan be adjusted to address these new circumstances? Are your adult children now able to handle your affairs?
- If you are older, and your health is starting to decline – does your current estate plan reflect this new reality? Is it time to start planning to protect assets from long term medical care costs? What rules and time frames are involved in such asset protection?
There are just a few of the common, yet unique to you, situations that require different planning. Working with an estate planning attorney can help you understand what is the right plan for you, and what you may need to keep in mind as you go through life and your life circumstances change. An estate planning attorney can help you see what might be coming, so that you don’t find yourself behind the times for what your current needs may be. Working with an estate planning attorney allows the attorney to ask you questions you may not have considered, but such questions can prepare you for the future and prepare your affairs for your family when you are gone.
Pick the Best Option for You, and Just Get Your Estate Plan Done!
If your life situation is such that an online self-help legal service will meet your needs, then please go ahead and get your estate plan done that way. If your life is a bit more complicated, and most everybody’s life is a complex mix of many things, then it is likely worth talking to an experienced estate planning attorney. It may be that you are a complex, interesting individual, but that your estate planning needs are basic. If you have talked to an estate planning attorney, and the estate planning attorney says you just need basic planning, then you can know that is the case. I find that with a lot of my clients, which is why I have reasonable prices for my basic estate plans, which start at $500 for a basic will package that includes the four foundational estate planning documents I mentioned earlier, a will, a financial power of attorney, a medical powers of attorney, and a living will / advanced directive. If you would like to discuss your situation and see if you need just basic planning, or possibly something more, you can do so by going here.