The recent proliferation of online estate planning document services has attracted many do-it-yourselfers who are lured in by what appears to be a low-cost solution. However, this focus on price over value could mean your wishes will not be carried out and, unfortunately, nobody will know there is a problem until it is too late and you are no longer around to clean up the mess.
Probate, trusts and intestate succession (when someone dies without leaving a will) are governed by a network of laws which vary from state to state, as well as federal laws pertaining to inheritance and tax issues. Each jurisdiction has its own requirements, and failure to adhere to all of them could invalidate your estate planning documents. Many online document services offer standardized legal forms for common estate planning tools including wills, trusts or powers of attorney. However, it is impossible to draft a legal document that covers all variations from one state to another, and using a form or procedure not specifically designed to comply with the laws in your jurisdiction could invalidate the entire process.
Another risk involves the process by which the documents you purchased online are executed and witnessed or notarized. These requirements vary, and if your state's signature and witness requirements are not followed exactly at the time the will or other documents are executed, they could be found to be invalid. Of course, this finding would only be made long after you have passed, so you cannot express your wishes or revise the documents to be in compliance.
Additionally, the online document preparation process affords you absolutely no specific advice about what is best for you and your family. An estate planning attorney can help your heirs avoid probate altogether, maximize tax savings, and arrange for seamless transfer of assets through other means, including titling property in joint tenancy or establishing “pay on death” or “transfer on death” beneficiaries for certain assets, such as bank accounts, retirement accounts or vehicles. In many states, living trusts are the recommended vehicle for transferring assets, allowing the estate to avoid probate. Trusts are also advantageous in that they protect the privacy of you and your family; they are not public records, whereas documents filed with the court in a probate proceeding are publicly viewable. There are other factors to consider, as well, which can only be identified and addressed by an attorney; no online resource can flag all potential concerns and provide you with appropriate recommendations.
By implementing the correct plan now, you will save your loved ones time, frustration and potentially a great deal of money. In most cases, proper estate planning that is tailored to your specific situation can avoid probate altogether, and ensure the transfer of your property happens quickly and with a minimum amount of paperwork. If your estate is large, it may be subject to inheritance tax unless the proper estate planning measures are put in place. A qualified estate planning attorney can provide you with recommendations that will preserve as much of your estate as possible, so it can be distributed to your beneficiaries. And that's something no website can deliver.
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