Is Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Ever a Good Idea?

Updated: Oct 6


By Barbara Boone McGinnis, CELA


We’re living in an age where information about many things is now available online. You can find a YouTube video on just about any subject. While that’s a good thing, there’s a definite downside. The wide availability of information has created what I call a false sense of competence.


Everyone thinks they’re just a few clicks away from being an expert.


Think about it. Let’s say you have a sharp pain in your gut. Would you try to diagnose it yourself and perform your own surgery? Your tooth hurts. Would you try do your own root canal?


Probably not.


Some things in life are best left to the experts. Even the experts turn to experts in certain situations. You won’t find a surgeon taking out his own gallbladder. You won’t find a dentist filling her own cavity.


Preparing essential estate planning documents has become a common DIY project. Maybe you know people who have completed Wills, Powers of Attorney or set up a Trust using documents from an online service. Maybe you’ve done it yourself.


It seems so easy. You download the documents, fill them out, get them notarized, and you’re done. You relax, thinking you’re covered.


But are you really?


You don’t know what you don’t know.


The so-called legal service websites don’t offer much in the way of guarantees. Legal Zoom, one of the most popular sources for DIY estate planning, has the following disclaimer on its website:

“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.”


Why would an online service that sells legal documents have such a disclaimer?


Drafting your own estate planning documents is like trying to perform your own root canal with a manual you’ve downloaded from the internet. Imagine that manual having a disclaimer that says, “We are not a dentist’s office or a substitute for an actual dentist.”


It’s hard to imagine because most people know better.


If you are a single person with one beneficiary and no property, legal forms you download from the internet might be just fine. If your life situation is more complicated, legal documents you get online won’t be sufficient. Ex-spouses, step-children, multiple beneficiaries, dependents with special needs, business transitions, and substantial assets like homes or businesses are complicating factors that make any sort of DIY legal documents a risky proposition.  Forms you download from the internet will rarely include the specific provisions necessary to ensure the successful protection and transfer of your assets.


Before you make the decision to DIY, ask yourself this question: Will the money you might save in legal fees offset the potential cost, headaches, and family strife that can be created by innocent mistakes?  Those who will be left to pick up the pieces after you’re gone are counting on you to make the right decision.

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