The Dangers of Online Will Forms
By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
December 30, 2014
You’ve probably heard stories about why you should or shouldn’t create your will online through a legal site instead of going to an attorney. Often, the arguments boil down to “it’s cheaper and faster” versus “it can miss things because it’s not as individualized.”
Unfortunately, people tend to think this means that online wills are perfectly safe if they just want a simple, straightforward document. Most of the time, this may be true. However, sometimes even innocuous situations end up being significantly more complex. This is primarily due to the fact that people don’t know what they don’t know.
That’s exactly what happened to the estate of Brian Woo.
Even the Simplest Will Forms Can’t Account for User Error
Brian Woo was young when he passed away – 38. He was active and healthy and had a good job, but one day his heart just gave out on him. He left behind a wife and two young children, as well as a short, clear-cut will that left everything to his wife if he died. Sounds reasonable, right?
Unfortunately, Brian didn’t think it was worth going to an attorney to have his will prepared. Instead, he used an online site where he could simply fill in the blanks. It took him less than 30 minutes to complete the document during his lunch break at work, and he was able to get the signatures he needed for witnesses from his coworkers.
To make sure there weren’t any errors, Brian even used the legal site’s option to have the will looked over by a practicing attorney for free. Sure enough, the attorney glanced at the document and declared it ready to go.
But what the attorney couldn’t have known – and what didn’t come out until Brian’s brother challenged the will in court – was that Brian had incorrectly followed the rules of getting witnesses to sign. First off, because he printed the document out himself, he did the natural thing and signed it immediately – without anyone else present. Only then did he get witnesses to sign, and that involved going from office to office and asking different coworkers at different times.
Unfortunately, doing this made the will invalid and forced the family to go through probate litigation, preventing his wife and two young kids from getting the money they needed to live in a timely fashion. They survived on credit and savings until the case finally made its way through the court system, and they inherited the money that they should have received in the first place.
An Attorney Would Have Prevented This Error
This is something that I can unequivocally say would never have happened had Brian gone to an attorney. Why? Because probate attorneys have you sign the will – with witnesses – in their offices in accordance with Florida law. This eliminates question of whether or not this part of the process was done appropriately, and is something you never need to worry about.
But it’s not the only reason why using an attorney to create your will is simply the smarter option:
They know what you don’t. A while back I read a story about a young, unmarried woman with no children or siblings who died and left her estate to her parents. Simple, straightforward, and rational, right? Except that by doing so, she accidentally ended up causing financial problems for them because they both had medical issues but could no longer qualify for Medicaid. An attorney could have helped her leave the money to them in a way that would have avoided this issue, but because she completed the will herself, she didn’t even realize it would be a problem.
It will be personalized. Online sites are getting better at drafting “unique” wills for people, but there is simply no substitute for being able to speak with another human being and have them ask you questions about your life and family.
They’ll catch mistakes. While it’s true that some online sites include the option of having an attorney read over your will to make sure it has been completed correctly, many people simply don’t do this. I’ve even heard of mistakes as ridiculous as leaving money to “Insert Name Here” because the person filling out the form didn’t realize that they had to delete that text even if they didn’t have a specific person that wanted to leave money to. Moreover, most sites disclaim that they are providing legal services, which should be eye-opening.
You can learn about better options. Sometimes simply leaving money to another person or entity in your will just isn’t the smartest way to go about it. You might cause tax issues, prevent them from receiving public assistance that they need, or otherwise hurt them when you only intended to help.
When you sit down with an attorney, they’ll be able to learn things about you, your loved ones, and the financial situations of everyone involved. They will understand your circumstances, goals, and wishes. This can help you to find alternative methods that may work better than a will.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose
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