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Read This Article Before You Create a Will Online

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Fine PrintToday’s questions:

  • What good is a “satisfaction guarantee” from an online will company when the problems with the will don’t become clear until you’re dead?
  • Why buy an online will kit from sellers who warn you that the content of their site is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date?

I was recently presented with a will prepared through an online service. The person who downloaded it, filled in the blanks, and signed it would never know the problems created by the online form, as he had passed away.  But now, upon review of the document following his death, the problems with it were becoming clear to his family.

Could he have spotted the problems before he died?  Probably not. The document looked like a duck, quacked like a duck, and was labeled like a duck, so he figured that it had to be an okay duck, right?

He was likely further put at ease by the “Satisfaction Guaranteed” content on the online service’s website:

“Your purchases are backed by a 100% money back satisfaction guarantee. Simply email customer service at [address] within 30 days of purchase and provide a reason for the refund request.”

Well that seems reassuring. Unfortunately, the problems with online wills are often not revealed until families attempt to enforce the will after the signer’s death.  And even if the signer had died within 30 days of purchase, there’d be a small problem emailing the company for a refund:

“Dear Company, I would have written you while I was alive, but I didn’t know there were so many problems in your will form until I died.

“And while my daughter is prepared to serve as executor, as I designated on your form, she can’t legally become my executor because of the problems my family’s attorney has identified upon reviewing your document.

“Maybe she’ll be able to become my executor in a few months, while the lawyers try to salvage what they can, but by then the 30-day ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ period will be over. Thanks anyway.”

What was wrong with the will? (Hey, do-it-yourselfers, use this as a checklist):

  • The Will wasn’t signed completely or correctly.
  • Because the Will didn’t address it, the executor was going to have to file an inventory with the court – which would reveal everything the dead person owned.
  • The Will didn’t excuse the executor from having to post a bond. So now the estate must shell out a premium to an insurance company who will guarantee that they’ll pay up if the executor doesn’t “do right.”
  • The power to collect and then sell particular assets wasn’t in the Will. So the executor will have to go to court for permission to do this.

This all comes under the heading of “You’ve got to be kidding,” because it would have been so easy to get things done correctly in the will. The cost (ugh, I know) of getting the will done right would have been a fraction of what it’s going to cost to correct the issues outlined above.

I was intrigued, so I went to another “do-it-yourself will” website – I’ll call it “Draft-It-Wiz” – and found this “warning” language (some text deleted to get you to the good parts):

“Draft-It-Wiz is not a law firm, and its employees are not acting as your attorney. Our legal document service is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.

“You are representing yourself in any legal matter you undertake through our legal document service. Communications between you and Draft-It-Wiz are not protected by the attorney-client privilege or work product doctrine.

“Draft-It-Wiz provides an automated software solution to individuals who choose to prepare their own legal documents. At no time do we review your answers for legal sufficiency, draw legal conclusions, provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation. Our services are not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.

“The legal information on this site is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Because the law changes rapidly, is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and is also subject to varying interpretations by different courts and certain government and administrative bodies, we cannot guarantee that all the information on the site is completely current.

No general information or legal tool like ours can fit every circumstance.”***

Wow.  It’s too bad this text is buried within the site and only readable with a magnifying glass once you do find it.

Bottom line:  The low cost and speed of do-it-yourself wills makes them tempting for sure, but the true cost kicks in for your family when you pass away.  Creating a will with a qualified attorney who specializes in the area may cost a bit more up-front, but you’ll be saving your loved ones a lot of headache and cash when the time comes for them to carry out your wishes.

***By the way, in case you’re wondering, attorneys cannot have their clients sign anything like the disclaimer italicized above. An attorney must be responsible for what he or she does, says, and writes. So clients cannot waive this protection, and cannot waive it for their survivors, representatives, et al.

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