Clients and potential clients ask me this question several times a year. There are several websites that offer legal forms, such as a Last Will and Testament template, for a fee. The companies behind these websites are trying to make money by offering consumers a cheaper alternative to meeting with a live lawyer and paying that lawyer to draft legal documents. So, I get the question: “Do I really need a lawyer to draft my Will?” Another question is: “If my Will is simple, are the forms online just as good as the Will you would draft for me?”
Obviously I have a bias and an interest in the subject matter! After all, I went to school for a long time, took the bar exam, and have worked many hours to ensure that I can provide high quality legal services. I would like to think all of that hard work was necessary!
My bias aside, I do strongly caution anyone against using a legal form downloaded from the Internet without any legal advice — for more reasons that I can probably count. Here are just a few: The wills I have seen online vary greatly in quality — some are better than others, but how is your average person able to tell the difference? Additionally, wills need to be tailored to the state in which they are executed, and many of the online wills I have seen online are not tailored very well, even though they are advertised as such. Finally, often online wills contain unnecessary terms that could make estate administration more difficult — and other times, the online wills might leave out an important provision, or even contain contradictory provisions! These problems can greatly frustrate the intent of the testator (that is, the person making the will), meaning that the estate cannot be administered in the way they had planned.
While I have seen problems with the language in online wills, people can also incorrectly execute wills when they do not sign them with the guidance of an attorney. For example, people might not execute in the presence of qualified witnesses without the guidance of a licensed attorney. If a will is not properly executed, it will be ineffective, with no legal power. If the will is ineffective, the money “saved” by downloading a will online will likely turn into money lost in estate administration.
I would be remiss if I did not admit that it is possible for some people in some cases to download a will that fulfills their intent and which they are able to properly execute. I just think the risk is too much. It is too important of a document to mess up — and the small amount saved by not seeing an estate planning attorney is not worth the possibility of a frustrating and/or costly mistake.
Matt Troy is an Oxford, Ohio attorney with an active estate planning practice. He welcomes inquiries from new clients.
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