I Buy Everything Online -- Can’t I Just Get my Trust There, Too?
Online or software-based programs that help you create an estate plan seem like a great idea. Lower cost! No in-person appointment that takes time from your busy schedule! Unfortunately, these perceived benefits often bring a great deal of cost and risk that the online shopper may not realize.
One of the main functions of an estate plan is to minimize expense and effort for you and your loved ones if you become incapacitated or die. However, minimizing the expense up front by considering cost or convenience alone will often place your assets in probate court due to a poorly written estate plan. Even the most sophisticated website or software can’t ask enough of the necessary questions – including the right follow up questions – to design and create an integrated set of documents that actually reflects your wishes. I have reviewed many estate plans created online. Not once have the documents matched with what the clients told me they wanted.
Worse still are documents where the website or program allowed the user to insert words or phrases that destroy the ability of the document to do its job. Since the documents in an estate plan must all work together, this problem is multiplied by the number of documents involved. You don’t need only a will, or only a trust, or only a durable power of attorney. Most clients will need all of these documents, and the documents must be properly written to work together. Every element that might be misaligned threatens to destroy the efficiency of the entire estate plan.
The remedy available for poorly-written documents after death – an expensive, inefficient remedy - is the probate court. I had a situation with website-generated documents where everyone in the family was in agreement, but the bad drafting generated by a website forced us to take the matter to court after death to seek interpretation and instruction. The result was thousands of dollars spent over one inappropriate phrase. In some extreme cases I have reviewed, I can literally say the family of the person who died would have been better off with no estate plan rather than the mess they printed from their home computer. In one memorable case, my married clients inserted words into their documents that would have forced the surviving spouse to put all her assets into an irrevocable trust for the rest of her life! We had to go to court to correct that problem.
An experienced attorney who has handled probates and estate administration and knows how to avoid them is a key resource for your family as you make preparations for your family’s future. A quality estate plan requires that the preparer of the documents knows and understands your desires regarding contingency plans. This level of understanding comes only though direct conversation where your professional can get to know you and ask all the questions needed to do the job correctly and with quality.
Computers are wonderful tools – and online shopping is great when you can see the picture of what you are buying or when you are buying an item you’ve purchased before. But your computer didn’t go to law school, and the software algorithms don’t have years of experience observing families and the court system after death or incapacity. Make the investment to reap the benefits of an ongoing, personal relationship with your own attorney.
SeaCliff Living Magazine, Best Version Media, Huntington Beach, CA, April 2019.
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to be a substitute for individualized legal advice. Please consult your legal advisor regarding your specific situation.