I read an article in the New York Times about wills recently that I found to be misleading enough that I had to write about it. It appeared in the September 8 print edition, and can be found online here. Titled “Making Wills Easier and Cheaper With Do-It-Yourself Options” (and titled differently in the print edition), the piece seems to make the somewhat reasonable case that one can save money by making a will themselves on the internet. Tragically, this piece materially mistakes the current array of options available when working with an attorney and completely ignores the myriad complications almost certain to backfire upon anyone seduced by this thrifty solution.
Look, I get it, no one wants to spend a lot of money on anything, let alone on something that only becomes relevant when they die. I’m sure no one wants to spend money on doctor’s visits, auto insurance, or mortgage payments either, but some things are too important to leave to chance and too complex to complete ourselves. Estate planning, for most people, is one of these things.
The Times piece begins by talking about a man named Michael Ellis, who had made a simple will though an attorney when he was young. Now 56 years old, Mr. Ellis needed a new will and, as the article says “instead of going to a lawyer who might have charged him tens of thousands of dollars [he] turned to an online service and created a new will himself.”
Well since those are the only two options I guess he was pretty smart right? Just kidding. People aren’t forced to choose between these two extremes. I’d bet that most attorneys, myself included, work for far less. Beyond that, Mr. Ellis is a peculiar choice of subject for this piece since his plan focuses on charitable giving, leading me to believe he’s unmarried with no children.
If you’re unmarried and have no children, then a do-it-yourself will might just be suitable for you. But what if you are married and/or have kids? Even if you're not, how would you know what you don't know?
Well, in an attempt to learn more about what online sources do for parents, I decided to check it out. On LegalZoom, I found a piece here titled “How To Create a Will When You Have Kids.” Let’s take a look, shall we?
Step 1: “Decide whether to have an attorney draft your will. Complex estates benefit from legal and tax advice while form wills often work well for simple holdings.” Couldn’t agree more. It continues…
Step 2: Pick a Guardian. Sounds good.
Step 3: Choose how to divide your assets. Yep.
Step 4: Consider contingencies. Mhmm. Now the big one.
Step 5: “Make an appointment with your attorney and take this information with you...”
So, even LegalZoom begins by suggesting that you should work with an attorney to create your estate plan when you have children. What they clearly understand is that the benefit of working with an attorney is our knowledge of what questions to ask in order to learn about someone's life, the expertise and experience to explain how the law works, and the foresight of what consequences come from one decision over another. None of us know what we don’t know - so endeavoring to do one’s own estate plan is a risk rarely worth taking.
Ultimately, we’re all free to make our own decisions, and that’s a wonderful thing. For single individuals without much property, maybe an attorney isn’t vital. But for everyone else, it’s at least worth taking advantage of a free consultation to learn a bit more about how your specific life circumstances and desires may benefit from working with a professional. If you have any questions, then please reach out and I’ll be happy to guide you in any way I can.