As a general rule, lawyers are not people that the average person wants to see on a regular basis. Personally, I cannot imagine why people would not want to hang out with someone who analyzes every word, answers every question with “it depends,” or talks about the consequences of every text message, Facebook post, the difference between “may” and “shall,” and of course, death. That being said, I am never surprised when someone says, “Can’t I just make a will online? Why do I need an attorney?”
The short answer, of course, is “it depends.”
The internet, and particularly YouTube videos, make people feel invincible and like we can do anything. I will never forget the time that my husband and I watched a video on how to remove a bad toilet and replace it with a new toilet. We were so proud of ourselves as we carried the old toilet down to the curb, put in the new toilet, flushed, and the water went down! We saved money on hiring a plumber, we felt accomplished, and we were ready to take on the next home improvement task…until we woke up two weeks later on Thanksgiving morning with water dripping into our kitchen from the ceiling. So there we were on Thanksgiving morning, spending substantially more than we would have otherwise spent to just have it replaced correctly the first time.
Thank goodness it was just a toilet, and not a matter of life and death. When you make a will online, you are operating under the assumption that it is going to be just as effective as if you had sat down with an attorney, and that you are “saving money.” I am sure there are many people who could watch a YouTube video on replacing a toilet and then successfully do it themselves. However, are you willing to take that risk when it is a genuine matter of life and death?
There are some factors that could impact the effectiveness of an online will. Here are three factors, of many, that should be taken into consideration for even the simplest of estate plans.
- Family. One of the primary reasons to write a will is to protect your family upon your passing. However, the structure of your family can severely impact how your assets should be distributed. Are you married? Is this a first marriage, second marriage, or is this a fourth marriage? Is either spouse a spendthrift, or unable to handle financial affairs independently? Is either spouse bringing in children from a prior relationship? Do you have younger (or older) children that probably should not have access to $20.00, no less $200,000? Are all beneficiaries mentally and physically healthy? Does anyone receive any type of governmental benefits? These questions form the basis of our conversation and help direct your estate plan.
- Assets/Debts. A common thing I hear is “I don’t have much anyways.” Many people assume that an estate plan is only for individuals with certain assets or a certain net worth, and that they do not need to do anything to protect their assets because they do not have those assets or worth. Interestingly, that number is different for every person and family. For some families, it is having enough assets to ensure that the funeral bill is paid. For others, it is to provide for generations upon generations, and pay for your great-great grandchildren to attend college. When planning for end of life and leaving a legacy, it is important to look at both assets and debts and to identify how things will truly be left for your family. There is a difference between how life insurance, a retirement plan, a house, and a car are distributed to your family, and understanding what does and does not fall under the will’s distribution is important to making sure your will is actually working the way you believe it should.
- Your Goals. Based on your family structure and your assets, your plan should reflect your wishes. I have never had a client walk in and say “I really didn’t earn any of my assets, I don’t care if they go back to the government and attorneys when I pass away.” Most people, understandably, want the assets that they have worked hard for their entire lives to go to their families or friends. The question always comes down to how you want to have these assets pass. Would you like for the childhood home to pass to all of your children equally, or would you like it to pass to the one child still in town that may want to live there? Do you want to make a one-time distribution of all assets, or would you like for each beneficiary to receive a certain payout over time? Do you want to specify how the inheritance is to be used, or are you comfortable making a gift and knowing that the beneficiary can spend the inheritance as he or she sees fit (even if that is to the dreaded daughter-in-law)? Identifying your goals helps you dictate your wishes, and an attorney can advise as to how to best accomplish your goals in your estate plan.
If you have any questions or concerns about your estate plan, the distribution of assets, or your best options as it relates to your family, assets, and goals, we would be happy to sit down with you for a consultation to “flush out” your wishes and help you develop the best plan.