Are Online Wills Legal? The Frightening Truth
As an estate planning attorney, I see a lot of wills that were created online at various websites or using in fill in the blank forms. Despite a will likely being the most important financial planning document a person can have, it is astonishing how many people attempt to create their own wills without the assistance of a professional. While many view estate planning as a “morbid” or “haunting” experience, most of my clients would tell you that it is simple, necessary, and relatively painless.
Once a person is convinced that he or she needs a will (see my Mythbusters blog post if you’re not sure), many factors can continue to impede the person from actually finalizing a will. The reality of one’s own death, the unselfish consequences of having a will, and the unwillingness to spend money on estate planning are common barriers that ultimately leave heirs scrambling to probate an intestate estate. Sometimes these factors are purely psychological, but often people are reluctant to spend money on something that will only benefit their heirs.
Online Wills: Do They Work?
For a more convenient and cheaper solution, many people are turning to the Internet to find a DIY estate planning website. There are countless websites, books, and software programs that offer cheaper alternatives than visiting your local estate planning attorney.
Are Online Wills Legal in WV or Elsewhere?
As an estate planning attorney, most online websites and their products make me cringe thinking of everything that can go wrong.
Online Wills May Not Be Legal or Valid at All.
To me, Wills are an art form that require explicit and precise language and specific execution formalities to be legally valid instruments. The horror that results from a document that lacks this particular language and the necessary formalities is often quickly followed with delight from attorneys who are able to pad their pockets in costly litigation construing and/or invalidating such instruments. In a worst case scenario, an online will may not be legal or valid at all.
Even When Valid, Online Wills May Create Additional Problems.
In addition to the potential invalidity of a document, there are countless other nightmares that could arise when an experienced estate planning attorney is not involved in the estate planning process. Here are just a few of the “tricks” that online wills sometimes play:
- State law may govern how your property passes. If all assets are not distributed, the remaining assets, or “the residuary” of the estate, will be distributed in accordance with the laws of intestacy of the state of the decedent (see West Virginia’s intestacy laws as an example).
- You (or your heirs) may pay higher taxes. If appropriate tax planning is not incorporated in the estate planning process, Uncle Sam may treat you with a larger tax bill.
- The court system may be involved. For example, if you have minor beneficiaries, they may be at the mercy of the judicial system for access to their inheritance – or even worse, receive their inheritance before they are mature enough to handle a sum of assets.
Online Will Services Are Not Comprehensive.
DIY programs also fail to give a comprehensive review of your assets and how they will pass. By failing to distinguish between probate and nonprobate assets, even when a DIY is technically valid, it may not ensure that all of your assets will pass in accordance with your wishes. If you have jointly owned assets or assets with beneficiary designations, those joint titles and beneficiary designations will trump the desires that you have expressed in your will.
Would you set your broken arm rather than go to the doctor? Would you build your own house instead of hiring a contractor? Probably not. Estate planning is another necessary part of adulthood. Avoid the frightening truths around DIY estate plans, and treat yourself to a professional plan that offers peace of mind and thankful beneficiaries.