After seeing commercials for Legalzoom.com, Von Achen decided to give it a try. “It’s not easy thinking about your next of kin, and who your child will go to upon your death, so that made me nervous,” says the married mother of one. “But I quickly overcame that due to the benefits of having a will in place.” She was encouraged to finally write a will for the benefit of her daughter. “I wanted to make sure that if something bad happened, our daughter would be well taken care of and be placed in the proper home of our choice; and to make sure she’d be financially sufficient,” she says.
The site was easy to use and the entire process took her less than an hour to complete, she says. “The hardest part was formulating my last wishes,” she says.
Only a few months ago, Von Achen was one of the 58 percent of Americans who do not have a will, according to a national survey conducted in 2008 by FindLaw.com, a legal news Web site and directory. Many of these people are considering turning to the crop of new online will-writing tools such as LegalZoom, BuildaWill, RocketLawyer and LegacyWriter. Even noted personal finance personality Suze Orman has set up a site called Suze Orman’s Will & Trust Kit, in which she walks you through writing a will, which details what you want done with your assets after your death, as well as a revocable trust, which provides for the management of your assets in the event you are incapacitated.
These online will-writing services typically range from $13.50 to $39, a significant savings over the hundreds of dollars a lawyer may charge. But will they save you money in the long run?
Diedre Wachbrit Braverman, an estate planning attorney based in California, doesn’t think so. A client who had created an online will before meeting with Braverman didn’t know the difference between a “remainder” beneficiary and a “contingent” beneficiary. “He ended up disinheriting his children completely,” she says. “It is easy to make small mistakes that have big consequences [when drafting] online wills.”
Even if an online will is created correctly, it “will not comfort and guide your family when you die,” Braverman says. “They will be left at a vulnerable time to shop for an attorney to help them administer the will.”
To be fair, lawyers stand to lose out the most by the increased competition resulting from the slew of online will writing products. So it’s not a surprise that lawyers like Jeffrey Asher, a partner at Eaton & Van Winkle LLP in Manhattan, believe that online wills are not appropriate for the majority of people. Still, many of the lawyers interviewed say that they are concerned that online will-writing kits hurt more than they help, and often this only comes to light once it’s too late.
Each state has its own rules when it comes to the form of the Will and the signing process, says Asher, who says that drafting a basic estate plan starts at $500 at his firm. “As an attorney, I have seen too many bad Wills get invalidated because they were not of the proper form and/or not signed properly.”
This is especially true, Asher says, when one or both spouses are foreign citizens, when minor children are involved, and when those with significant assets want to reduce their tax exposure.
However, “a married or unmarried individual with an insignificant level of assets, who knows where his or her assets will go, and that there will be no conflict among the beneficiaries, and has a clear choice of executor will probably get a rather satisfactory will online,” he says.
It’s those people — the ones with less significant assets — who are probably most tempted to save a few hundred dollars by creating their will online.
Not all online will kits are created equal. RocketLawyer, for example, offers a network of attorneys who specialize in various topic and state laws. “Consumers can choose to have their legal documents created via RocketLawyer reviewed by a lawyer within the network to ensure accuracy and provide customization according to the user’s needs,” says Charley Moore, CEO of RocketLawyer. While the will is free for first-time users, having a lawyer check the document may result in an additional fee.
Still, folks like Asher recommend that the buyer beware. “Even having an online lawyer ‘review’ the will does not give me any more confidence in the process,” he says.