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Lawyer vs Website: 3 Reasons to Avoid “Discount” Estate Planning Websites

Author: Andrew M. Friedman Date: 05/29/2020

Categories: Estate Planning and Administration

A hand Signing Last Will and Testament documentThere are a lot of websites out there that allow you to make your own estate planning documents at a bargain rate. Wills, Powers of Attorney . . . even Trusts.

If you can make a Will for a fraction of the price, why wouldn’t you?

My advice: stay far away from these websites.

And no, I am not saying this because I want everyone who reads this to become my client. Rather, I have witnessed – time and time again – the negative consequences of using a discount estate planning website. Even though being financially responsible and saving money is important, estate planning is not the place to look for the biggest bargain. If you do, you may wind up passing on added financial stress and hardship to your loved ones, and risk that your final wishes may not be carried out as you had hoped.

If nothing else, I want to arm you with the knowledge to make an informed decision before selecting who – or what – will create your estate planning documents on your behalf.

The ultimate goal of estate planning is peace of mind. You want to put the appropriate documents and designations in place to make sure you, your loved ones, and your assets, are protected in case you become incapacitated or pass away.

Estate planning is about more than words on a page. It’s about the conversations, critical thinking, and analysis that led to those words and decisions.

The last step of a good estate plan should be you taking a deep sigh of relief, because you’ve had your unique circumstances examined by a skilled, experienced professional.

A website cannot do that for you.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. Often the most valuable part of working with a lawyer are the discussions you have before, during, and after drafting your documents.

In law school, there’s one skill that virtually every professor wants you to refine. It’s called “issue spotting.”

A trained lawyer should be able to look at a set of facts, and identify any issues that need to be resolved. The lawyer should have thoughtful follow-up questions and be able to identify solutions.

Even better, the lawyer should think deeply about the humans who are in front of them.

That’s one of my favorite parts of estate planning. Building a meaningful, professional relationship built on trust and competency and understanding who you are as a human with unique goals and needs.

A website cannot do that.

A recent example: a client told me, “My mom wants to add my name to the deed to her home. Can you help me do that?”

If I were a website I’d say: Yes. Click here and fill out a deed.

But as a human lawyer, my response was: “I could, but here are a few things to think about . . .” I discussed state-specific real estate issues. Federal and state income tax issues. Federal gift tax issues. Specific questions that relate to her and her mom’s unique needs and circumstances.

After our discussion, she said, “Wow, I’m glad I asked.”

In some cases, preparing an estate plan might seem as simple as filling in a blank. “Who should I name as guardian of my minor children?” You might simply say: I’ll pick my sister.

It’s the follow up questions to your responses that truly separate the attorneys from the websites. Should you name an alternate? Should you name a co-guardian? Should you name your sister’s spouse as co-guardian since he or she will presumably share childcare responsibility? Should your sister also serve as trustee of your children’s trusts? There might be very important reasons to separate those two roles. What may have seemed like a simple fill-in-the-blank ought to involve a thoughtful, thorough discussion.

2. Almost every estate planning attorney has experienced “fixing” Wills made from websites.

It was one of my first days working as an estate planning attorney when a client came in to “update” his Will that he made from a popular website. My supervisor gave me the Will to review. I was a brand-new estate planning attorney, yet I felt like a law professor picking out all of the deficiencies this document had.

As I’ve grown as an estate planning attorney, several more website Wills have come across my desk. Each one has made for some of my more notable experiences. Like the time I helped a client track down a long-retired ex-notary who lived halfway across the country so we could prove the website Will was validly executed. We miraculously found the former notary and were able to have them sign an affidavit to prove they also “witnessed” the Will.

It seems like every experienced estate planning attorney I talk to has countless “website Will” horror stories.

Don’t let your estate plan become one of these stories.

3. Read the disclaimers.

If a law firm were to explain what it does, it might say something like:
“We allow you to talk to an attorney. Your communications with that attorney are protected by attorney-client privilege. We can give you advice, explanations, opinions, and/or recommendations about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, and/or strategies.”

Compare that with this disclaimer in the fine print from a popular Will website:

“Communications between you and [the website] are . . . not [protected] by the attorney-client privilege.”

“We are not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm.”

“We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.”

Ironically, an attorney almost certainly wrote that disclaimer. It turns out, even these discount websites need a real human attorney to handle their affairs.

Contact Andrew M. Friedman at afriedman@mcmillanmetro.com with any questions about your estate planning needs.