DIY Planning is Risky Business

Jessica Schultheis

by Jessica Schultheis

Jessica Schultheis is a former attorney with My Pink Lawyer®, now an Assistant State Attorney in Pensacola, Florida. Jessica graduated from the University of Florida for both her undergraduate studies and law school.

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I’ve heard it many times from friends and family when they find out what kind of law I practice: “I just need a very simple will leaving everything to my kids, so I’ll just write it myself.” 

And in recent years, the list of “do-it-yourself” online legal providers have continued to grow, making it even easier for people to draft their own estate planning documents.  Websites like LegalZoom offer cheap estate planning documents, where you fill in the details, that ordinarily would “cost” more if prepared by an attorney.

Having an estate plan in place is important, and people put off their estate planning for various reasons: they don’t want to spend the money, they don’t want to think about their immortality, they haven’t decided who they want to leave their estate to or who they want to take care of their children if something happens to them, etc.  At first blush, an online do-it-yourself document service provides a quick and cost effective solution to at least get something in place.      

But there are several things to consider before deciding to prepare your own estate planning documents with the help of an online legal provider. 

First, a computer program can’t ask you about your family relationships, discuss the complex dynamics of your children and in-laws, or analyze your assets and help you brainstorm the best way to potentially avoid probate and carry out your wishes. 

Of equal importance, a computer program can’t ensure that your will is executed correctly with certain formalities, a notary, and witnesses.  A will must meet requirements for probate, properly make distributions of the estate assets, appoint personal representative(s) to handle the estate, and potentially appoint guardians for children.  

To put it simply, a website is not a lawyer.

It’s also worth noting that LegalZoom alone has been sued in at least three states for violating those states’ unauthorized practice of law rules.

Mistakes made in the drafting of important estate planning documents can leave our loved ones with financial and emotional consequences and perhaps even hostile litigation. 

In Florida in 2014, a woman used an “E-Z Legal Form” to leave all of her possessions to her brother, if her sister predeceased her.  Her sister did predecease her, and the woman inherited substantial assets from her sister.  The woman’s will did not contain a proper residuary clause, and the woman attempted, on her own, to amend the will, to address all of the new assets that she had inherited.  At her death, the will was challenged in court and her amendment was not admissible.  Since the will did not contain a proper residuary clause, the court had to rely on intestate rules and other relatives ended up inheriting.  This is a sad example of a woman’s wishes and intent not being honored because of incomplete estate planning documents. Aldrich v. Basile, 136 So.3d 530 (Fla. 2014).

For most people, an estate planning lawyer is a much better option over an online legal provider for the following reasons:

  • A lawyer is also a counselor and who offers advice and suggestions during an estate planning discussion.
  • A proper will must clearly state your intent to dispose of assets and contain other proper language that a lawyer is trained to draft.
  • Estate planning lawyers know the rules of proper will execution and can also keep your will safe in the event something happens to your home and your documents are destroyed.
  • It is important to many clients to avoid probate for their family members who are inhering, and estate planning lawyers can strategize on how to avoid probate to the extent possible.
  • Furthermore, websites such as LegalZoom are not going to provide important provisions in the documents for your special needs children or set up special needs trusts.

A DIY estate plan might work for you, if you have simple assets passing only to one family member (assuming your assets and titled correctly and your beneficiaries are named correctly which is another discussion altogether).  But why take the risk? 

At My Pink Lawyer®, we urge you to proceed with caution in using an online legal provider to prepare your estate planning documents.  A proper, professionally-drafted Family Succession Plan™ (what we call our proprietary planning process which we’ve honed over 20+ years) is well worth your peace of mind and sense of security.

If you haven't already downloaded the book Kristen wrote on the subject of protecting your assets with a simple checklist of missteps to avoid in your own planning, you can do so by clicking the link below. 

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