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Penny Wise and Pound Foolish: The Risks of the Free Online Will

October 19, 2022

Morgan T. Dilks

A friend recently reached out to me seeking advice on the preparation of a will.  He has two young children, a spouse, a home, retirement savings, and a rainy-day fund.  He knows the importance of memorializing his intentions; however, he was interested in preparing the will himself using an online tool that he found for free.  I quickly advised against this.

Free online wills are nothing new.  Websites providing very basic estate planning materials have existed in one form or another for as long as the internet has been around (and even before that if we count off-the-shelf computer software).  Some websites provide forms (loaded with self-protecting caveats prepared by the author) for free to the user, paid for by the advertising revenue the website brings in by hosting their website. Others provide these services free of charge to the testator (the individual making the will), who often possesses some affiliation with a not-for-profit organization. In that case, the website charges the cost of the tools provided for preparation of the will to the not-for-profit organization (who understandably hopes that you’ll keep them in mind when deciding where your assets will go).

The four basic estate planning documents are a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters, and an advance health care directive.  Some “free” websites have all of these documents available only if you purchase their higher-end packages.  Some websites offer limited attorney consultation (for a fee), while others merely offer a page of frequently asked questions (which often leaves much to be desired). If you plan to utilize any or all of these documents as provided by a do-it-yourself (“DIY”) website, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach that may not be what you desire.  

The advantage of using a DIY service is that you’ll have a plan.  This may work for individuals who own no real estate, have no spouse or children, and have limited assets they want to leave to one person.  

When we get into the complexities of family dynamics and possible trust language specific to your situation, DIY estate planning can lead to more problems than solutions.  While you may have ideas as to how you want to dispose of your assets after you die, you may not know the particulars of the case law and legislation that have evolved into the state’s probate code. If your will and estate documents are not properly prepared, you could be saving a small amount of money now and planting the seeds for complex and costly litigation among your beneficiaries later. Most importantly, your objectives may not be achieved.

The cost savings, time savings, and the surface simplicity of a DIY online will are all attractive reasons to use those tools; however, your specific goals are unlikely to be achieved through the use of generic forms.  The advice that an experienced estates and trusts attorney can provide is far more valuable on a dollar-for-dollar basis than the money an individual can save using the DIY method.  Many of us would hire an electrician before we’d risk an electric shock by missing a critical step in the YouTube video we watched.  Many of us would hire a plumber before causing a costly flood to our homes.  The same holds true for preparing complex legal documents to manage the distribution of assets you’ve worked so hard to acquire over the years.  

The British idiom “penny wise and pound foolish” describes activity in which one is careful with small amounts of money at the risk of large amounts of money.  A similar American proverb was famously coined by Benjamin Franklin: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  By utilizing free forms provided on the internet a few pennies can be saved today, but the mess it could create may cost your beneficiaries significantly in the future.  An experienced estates and trusts attorney can advise you through this critically important process, and the dollars spared by working with a proper professional will make the dollars spent seem like pennies by comparison.

When it comes to the distribution of our assets when we’re gone, we all need a plan. RKW Law Group is here to help.

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