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I give a lot of community presentations estate planning.  At these presentations, the most common question get is: Can I use internet forms to do my estate planning?

The answer I give in my presentation is from the old Fram Oil Filter commercial: “The choice is yours. Pay me now. Or, pay me later.”  In essence, use of internet forms is nearly always the “penny wise and pound foolish” solution to a complex issue that affects you and subsequent generations of your family.

Before you decide to use internet (or office supply store) forms for your estate planning, ask yourself the following questions:

Do You Know What Your Estate Plan Should Include?

Most people believe an estate plan consists of a Will or a Trust.  It is so much more.  A basic estate plan consists of a Will, Health Care Advance Directives, a Durable Power of Attorney, and beneficiary designations.  However, this basic estate plan may not fit every person.  Families with disabled children need to consider a special needs trust to protect those children in the future.  Sick spouses need special considerations in estate plans.  Blended families may need to consider waivers of spousal rights under state laws or special considerations for stepchildren.  Attorneys can address these issues better than an internet search engine, especially if you don’t know you may have these issues.

What Do You Know About These Forms?

A Google Search for “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Forms” results in hundreds of pages of forms and sales pitches for forms.  Some of these pages even promise they have been “created by attorneys”.  There is no way to verify these claims.  Even if the forms were created by attorneys, do you know if the attorney was licensed to practice law in your state, knew current law in your state, or had any experience with estate planning? Each state has its own laws regarding Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorneys, and even Health Care Advance Directives.  Each state has its own signing requirements.  How do you determine if the documents you are downloading comply with your state’s laws?  How do you verify you are signing them in compliance with your state’s laws?  If the documents you are downloading don’t comply with your state law and are not properly signed, they may be invalid.  If they are invalid, they do nothing for you.

Do You Know What The Language In These Form Means To You?

Legalese is always confusing, even when a good lawyer is helping explain it.  Internet forms are full of legalese, like all legal documents.  Do you know what the Latin phrases and legal jargon mean?  When you are reading the language do you know what it means, if it is language used in your state, or what it means to your estate plan?  The consequences of language that you believe means one thing, but means something else can be devastating.  The absence of legal language that you don’t know should be in a legal document can be even worse.  For example, the Florida Supreme Court was forced to decide a case in which a woman used a form Will to leave her estate to a relative.  However, the form did not include a “residuary clause”.  A residuary clause is used in Florida to leave the remainder of an estate to beneficiaries.  Because this was not a part of the form the Will did not properly distribute all of her property so the remainder of the woman’s estate went to family members she probably did not want inheriting her estate.

How Much Does It Cost To Fix a Bad Internet Form?

Most people choose to use internet forms because they think it’s cheaper than going to an attorney.  In the short term, using free internet forms is cheaper–FREE.  But those forms are worth exactly what you paid for them–NOTHING.  I am always surprised people who spend their lives building a financial legacy to leave to their families are willing to leave that financial legacy to some free or small cost (for example $19.99) documents they download from the internet.  When something is wrong with the documents you used from the internet, there will be a cost.  You may not be the one to pay it.  Most often it is your family.  Your family will pay the lawyer you could have talked to about your estate plan for a small fee thousands of dollars to go to court to correct the damage done by the FREE internet documents you used for your estate planning.  This damage might include having a probate fight to determine who should inherit your property, getting guardianship over you so  a member of your family can make financial decisions, or a civil action to reform a trust to protect a disabled child so he/she can retain the public benefits needed to maintain medical care.  In every case, the costs of fixing the problems caused by that free internet form are going to be far more than your family ever wanted to pay.

You spent a time and money building your life, buying a home, saving your money, and determining how best to provide for your spouse and children.  An internet search and a free form created by a computer programmer who doesn’t know anything or about you is not the way to protect you or your family.  For a reasonable fee, in comparison to your assets and your needs, a good elder law attorney can assist you in creating a solid estate plan that can help protect you and your family.