Download a Will or Hire a Lawyer?

Rarely a week goes by without a call that goes like this:

“I used an online service to prepare my will. Can I make an appointment to have you read it over to make sure it’s right and then have it signed?”

Does a downloadable will give you peace of mind?

If you’ve paid for an online service to prepare your will and seek to have it reviewed, do you have doubts that it was drafted correctly to carry out your wishes? Could there be laws that have a bearing on what you’re doing that you don’t know about?

Good estate planning gives people peace of mind that their affairs are in order. Even if the will is correct, it only addresses how property you own individually passes. It doesn’t address all property or other issues that are associated with good estate planning. A bargain price may not give you the peace of mind you seek.

Potential problems without personal legal advice.

A downloadable will service may not know what to ask you to get the right answers. Many legal rules may impact your situation, but you may not know to ask about them. For example, did you know that:

  • In New York, you can’t appoint an overseas relative as the sole guardian for minor children.
  • If you write a New York will that leaves out-of-state property to your kids, you’ll need ancillary probate in the other state too. Putting property in trust may be a better idea.
  • A New York executor must be a U.S. citizen or resident. In Florida, an executor cannot be out-of-state, except for certain relatives.

Special rules apply to how wills must be “executed” or legally signed.

Every state has its own rules about a “signing ceremony” or what’s required to have a valid will. These rules spell out how a will must be witnessed or notarized and who can attest to these matters if the will’s validity is ever called into question. Do the witnesses have to be in the same room? Can you just sign your will in front of one person and then go ask your neighbor to sign as the other witness later? Do your witnesses have to be residents of your state?

Why use a downloadable will service? 

Faced with these legitimate concerns, why would someone use a downloadable will service vs. hiring an attorney? Price is the number one reason. To download a basic will package on LegalZoom® or Nolo ®, the price points range from approximately $40 to $180. According to Thumbtack.com, the cost of an attorney drafted will in Westchester county ranges from $1,000 to $1,500 per person, depending on your zip code.

For some people, a truly simple will that you can download online may get the job done. In my experience, however, of those who tell me they need a simple will, only about 15-20% really do. Most people need more information and advice than they can get online.

Hiring a lawyer.

People make all sorts of assumptions about their assets, plans and how the law works. A downloadable will form cannot substitute for informed decision making nor can it necessarily address how to avoid probate or future Medicaid planning. These subjects come up during estate planning conversations with a lawyer.

We all have areas where we choose to cut corners to save money, but a one-size-fits-all will is not estate planning and should be approached with caution.

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