An estate plan and the legal documents contained therein have serious consequences for you, your family and your property. Creation of an estate plan requires a thorough, frank discussion of your health, welfare, finances, your family members, your life long goals, and your death. It also requires the creation of documents that accommodate you and your family’s particular needs.
In light of what an estate plan is, I was shocked when I recently heard a nationally recognized, “consumer expert” touting the use of a new smart phone app for the creation of a Will. Do-it-yourself legal forms are nothing new. Before the internet you could buy legal forms such as Wills, health care advance directives and powers of attorney in office supply stores. Now, they are popping up on the internet and in smart phone apps with promises of simplicity and ease. But is a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all form created by computer programmers in another state or even another country developed to address the particularities of your life and family?
As an elder law attorney, I regularly see these forms become an expensive problem for families and individuals who use them. Each state has its own requirements for signing and witnessing estate planning documents such as Wills, powers of attorney, and health care advance directives before they are valid under the law. Individuals often fail to complete or execute pre-printed forms in compliance with their state’s laws. In addition, when using electronic documents, individuals may use an “electronic” signature believing it is enough to make the document valid, when in fact an “electronic” signature is not valid on most estate planning documents.
One reason many people use these pre-printed forms is because they believe they are saving money. But, these documents often cost families far more when they cannot be used for their intended purposes. When these documents fail, families often must turn to the courts to correct them or resolve the disputes that arise in the confusion, costing thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees and court costs.
It is in your best interest to consider the risks of pre-printed forms before staking your financial future and the future of your family beneficiaries’ futures on a smart phone app or online printout. When considering the use of these pre-printed forms, you should ask several questions about the document:
1) do they comply with the laws of your state;
2) do they use your state’s required language to allow authority over your property;
3) do they have provisions that accommodate the issues for your beneficiaries such as those with disabilities or substance abuse problems;
4) do they accommodate your religious or ethical beliefs or requirements;
5) are there any specific filing or recording requirements for these documents in your state; or
6) do they address any tax issues that your estate may face?
If your answer is “no” or “I don’t know” to any of the above questions, then do not use the forms and seek the advice of counsel.