The headline says it all. Have you ever considered purchasing a will, or a note, or incorporation documents from one of those legal “do it yourself” websites? The appeal is obvious. For less than a couple hundred bucks, you supposedly can get yourself and your spouse simple wills that leave your stuff to each other and to your kids. Or document your loan to your friend. Or get your company started up. Maybe you don’t feel like you have that much at stake anyway and good enough really will be good enough.
Consumer Reports bought and evaluated services from several legal DIY websites, and their experience reveals that, while there are some extremely simple situations where what these sites give you might be sufficient, it doesn’t take much to get beyond what they can competently handle — something that I don’t find surprising at all.
I create a lot of estate plans for families with young children, many of which have relatively straightforward financial and family situations. Typically, they just want to ensure that a surviving spouse will be taken care of and that the kids will then benefit from what is left. But even within that relatively simple situation, there are so many details that still need to be worked out:
- Do you want your kids to inherit their money equally, regardless of need, or do you want kids that need a little more help to get it?
- Do you want your kids to inherit all of their money, no strings attached, when they’re 18, or do you want someone to manage their money for them? If it’s the second option, for how long? Until they’re 21? 25? 40?
- Do you want your kids’ inheritance to be tied to some sort of achievement or event, like graduating from a four year university?
- Do you have family members besides your kids to whom you would like to give some assets? Or a charity?
- If you pass away while your kids are still minors, do you want the same person who becomes responsible for their day-to-day care to be responsible for managing their finances as well? Or would you like to split those tasks between two different people?
- What happens if the person you want to have serve as your kids’ guardian turns out not to be available?
This list can get quite lengthy, and I’ve never seen any two people answer all the questions identically. Every estate plan that I have drafted has involved some sort of twist, unique to the individual for whom I am creating it, that takes me some time and effort to ensure that I get it right. I’ve tried to streamline my estate planning process as much as possible, and I can assure you, there is no one-size-fits-all option.
Moreover, if you are not used to working with legal documents, it can be difficult to anticipate what might not be clear to others, or what might become unclear if circumstances change. Here’s an example I recently came across. A will left “two thirds of my estate to my daughters, Sally and Sue, and one third of my estate to the children of my daughter Stacy, who died before me.” That’s pretty clear, right? Except that Sue died before the person who made this will did, and he never got around to changing it before he died. So now the question is, who is supposed to get Sue’s share of the estate? Sally? Or is Sally supposed to split Sue’s share with Stacy’s kids? It’s looking like it might take some very expensive probate litigation to get the answer to that question.
Unmet needs and unintended results
To determine whether the most popular legal DIY websites were up to the challenge of dealing with these kinds of issues, Consumer Reports purchased several different documents from each of them, and then had those documents reviewed by law professors. The verdict?
Generally better than drafting the documents yourself without legal training or not having them at all. But unless your needs are simple—say, you want to leave your entire estate to your spouse—none of the will-writing products is likely to entirely meet your needs. And in some cases, the other documents aren’t specific enough or contain language that could lead to “an unintended result.”
One of Consumer Report’s primary goals is to prevent consumers from overpaying for products or services. In my experience, they rarely recommend the most expensive option. If a cheaper option provides the best value, despite having fewer features or a lower level of service, they recommend that cheaper option. Their decision not to do that here is significant.
If you’re going to the trouble of documenting a legal transaction, it’s because you have decided that the outcome of that transaction matters. But doing it wrong often ends up being worse than not doing it at all. While my potential bias is obvious, Consumer Reports doesn’t have a dog in this fight. For the things that matter, you are going to be better off consulting a lawyer.