Technology has made life and business simpler by its ease of use and accessibility. Banking, paying bills, business communications, and ability to quickly look up medical or legal facts are all made easier through technology. Many people see advertisements for online legal services and wonder if this could speed up or simplify their legal process. We live in the age of information and there is no shortage of websites online offering quick fixes for business forms and legal products. But do you know what you are getting? A good estate plan (Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney, Healthcare Directive) is like insurance. Until the need arises, most people are unaware of exactly what their policy provides. Unfortunately, many will not know the quality of their “do it yourself” legal products, because the problems do not arise until after their death.
One might be tempted by the allure of a product that comes with promises of quick, easy, and cheap legal work. It is enticing to avoid hiring a lawyer. But, one basic truth resonates: you get what you pay for. For example, each state has specific laws, and every family has its own unique composition and issues that need consideration in an estate plan. An online form is unable to accommodate these needs.
In Minnesota, it is actually not difficult to execute a legally valid Will as there are three basic elements: (1) the Will must be typed, (2) the Will must be signed by the person making the Will, and (3) the Will must be notarized and signed by two witnesses present during the signing of the Will. Any adult with a sound mind may make a Will, if the above requirements are met. A handwritten note, however, stating who gets what (holographic Will) is not valid in Minnesota.
As an attorney, I have reviewed form processed Wills that have failed to meet even the aforementioned requirements. However, even if the Will is legally valid by meeting the minimum requirements, drafting your own Will is risky because it is likely not to provide what you want it to provide. Legalese is a different language than English. Even the finished product from an online form company will be formal and almost entirely legalese. You may be taking a significant risk by assuming you understand a certain word or phrase. In fact, Forbes recently reported that some have accidentally disinherited children by not understanding legal phrases and choosing the wrong language through online forms. Drafting a Will with a licensed attorney can give you the peace of mind that you did not misapply legal words and phrases. It is the job of an attorney to know those words and phrases and apply them appropriately.
As an example, in our office, clients fill in the blanks of an estate planning document to give us an idea of what the client wants. More often than not, clients unintentionally make mistakes in selecting language that would result in the opposite unintended result. It is the attorney’s responsibility to choose the proper language that meets the needs of the client.
If the mistakes are not discovered until the need arises, it is too late. Ineffective legal documents usually results in expensive litigation. If you have an inadequate estate plan, the problems are passed onto loved ones and the Court to decipher your wishes. Before you consider doing it yourself entirely on your own or through the latest online legal services, at a minimum, speak with a licensed attorney to ensure that your intentions are properly understood and carried out in your estate plan.
*** UPDATE ***
Ohio High Court questions whether use of forms by non lawyers should be considered unauthorized practice of law.
*This article does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to constitute advertising or solicitation for legal services. Nothing in this article should be construed by you as a source of legal advice. You should not rely or act upon the contents of this article without seeking advice from your own attorney.