An effective estate plan should be as simple as possible, so long as it carries out your wishes. However, some want you to believe that you need only purchase a form to have an effective estate plan. Using this form, you are told, can save money and — best of all — the form is valid in all 50 states.
If the total cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of the document, it will no doubt be the least expensive option available anywhere. And, on the surface, it appears simple and straightforward; what could be wrong with something that is cheap, simple and straightforward? Well, actually, a lot. The same things that make it attractive are the things that make it dangerous. By not attempting to account for your individual circumstances, it turns your estate plan into a type of "mass production" process where your loved ones are left to make a $100 document manage an estate worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And the fact that a form is valid in every state is not much of an advantage because it just means the form is so general that it meets the very basic requirements of every state. And while that strategy is good for sales, it is not so good for many, many individuals whose specific circumstances and wishes are not reflected in those basic requirements.
If the total cost of an estate plan includes the money that will be spent on the back end after your passing, then a $100 will becomes much more expensive and, in most cases, more expensive than the cost of a personalized estate plan in the first place. In addition to the overall cost savings of an individual estate plan, the peace of mind and confidence that your estate will be carried out the way you intend, also makes it clear that using a $100 form is the least attractive and most dangerous option of all.
Take the example of a family that, upon the father's passing, was torn apart because of a "valid" but unclear will. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one son felt left him the right to significant assets. Expensive litigation followed, and the family was immediately divided, hardly what the father was hoping and expecting from his family. And while the legal issues have since been resolved, the family relationship has not healed and likely will never be. And all of that because of a $100 will, "valid in all states."
Other issues that mass production wills cannot handle very well include naming the proper executors, guardians and conservators; caring for pets; dealing with blended families; handling other "payable on death" designations found in retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies; and especially end-of-life instructions, to name a prominent few.
If you think very long about using an online estate planning option, it usually does not take long to see how the advantages are heavily outweighed by its numerous disadvantages and how a $100 expense actually just opens the door to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more in what we call "repair expenses." You can avoid the repair costs, and other risks to your family, by consulting an experienced estate planning lawyer who will be certain your estate plan does what you want, not what works in all 50 states.
Brad Wright's business and estate planning practice includes transactional and litigation matters with a special focus on business succession. His brother, Steve, has a similar law practice in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and together they assist businesses of all sizes and types with a wide variety of legal issues.