We’ve seen the low prices. Only $69 for a will — as long as you do it yourself using an online tool. That seems so much less expensive than what you might spend going to an experienced estate planning attorney — but a lot could go wrong.
Up to half of all Americans have no will or estate plan at all. Surely, even an imperfect will from an online service is better than nothing at all, right?
It’s hard to say. True, there is some advantage to having a plan over not having a plan. At the very least, your family would have some clue about what you hoped to achieve.
Unfortunately, a defective will can easily be rejected by the probate court. That could leave your family without the instructions they need to distribute your assets.
Good estate planning is about making your preferences clear. With a will or trust, that generally means distributing your assets directly or indirectly to your heirs and beneficiaries. With a power of attorney, an advance directive and a HIPAA release, that means taking care of your property and healthcare decisions if you should become incapacitated.
First, you probably need a complete estate plan
Before you get excited about that $69 will, be aware that it probably won’t be enough. Most people could benefit from having some kind of trust, and almost everyone should have a power of attorney, advance directive and HIPAA release.
A power of attorney gives a trusted person the authority to make financial decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated. This allows them to pay your bills, for example, while you are in the hospital.
An advance directive (sometimes called a “living will”) gives instructions to your caregivers if you are incapacitated. You can use it to describe in some detail what medical services you want — and don’t want — at the end of your life. Alternatively, a healthcare power of attorney gives a trusted person the authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.
A HIPAA release relates to the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which governs privacy in medical decisions. If you want your family or healthcare power of attorney to be able to discuss your medical condition with your doctors, you may need this release.
Do you need a trust?
It’s hard to know whether you need a trust until you know what different types of trusts can do. One thing that trusts do is take assets out of the estate so that they don’t have to go through probate. That can be a big consideration and could save your loved ones money in the longer term.
There are many types of trusts, from special needs trusts, which can help adults with disabilities, to pet trusts, which can care for your beloved companion animals when you pass away. There are revocable and irrevocable trusts. The decision to create a trust requires a goal and a trust that will meet that goal. An estate planning lawyer can help you decide what kind of trust, if any, you could benefit from.
You may never realize your estate plan is defective
One reason to have an attorney handle your estate planning is that your attorney is up-to-date on all the laws, regulations and court decisions governing estate planning in your state. With an online will form, you simply don’t know if filling in the blanks will result in a valid estate plan. It may seem perfectly fine until the time comes to use it. By then, it will be too late to overcome any mistakes.
Ultimately, you should have a professional help with your estate plan because it will help ensure that your wishes will be followed. You don’t know what you don’t know about estate planning, and you don’t want your family to be left without clear instructions once you have passed away.