Do I really need a lawyer to help me with estate planning documents? Aren’t there enough internet resources out there to get me what I need? From time to time, a client or potential client will ask me these sorts of questions. There is little doubt that web-based resources are the low-cost provider in the estate planning industry. In most cases, what you can find online will indeed cost less than legal counsel, guidance and service from a lawyer. So, the question then becomes: what level of quality, expertise and legal counsel do I get? In the end, there are a number of reasons why this approach is ill-advised:
(1) Generic Cookie Cutter Forms. By nature, form-type documents are not tailored to the goals, concerns and priorities of a client. While it is conceivable that the provisions contained in a form provided online could match your goals, it is, in practice, highly unlikely. In nearly every instance in which I have subsequently reviewed a client’s “self-help” documents, they have been woefully inadequate.
(2) Missing Legal Requirements? Certain estate planning documents have stringent statutory requirements as to the manner in which they are signed, how many witnesses may be required and even what language must be included. These legal requirements are often overlooked and you can readily end up with a document that “seems” like its complete and enforceable but it simply is not.
(3) No Related Counsel. Effective estate planning includes meaningful expert counsel from your lawyer. Beyond just preparing documents, an effective estate planning attorney will be able to discuss your goals, questions and priorities in a way that leads to good decision making about estate planning. Additionally, related counsel about property ownership and similar are an important part of good legal counsel and can only be effectively provided by an experienced lawyer.