Estate planning for seniors and caregivers who are helping them can be complicated. Add to that the cost of consulting with a lawyer to create such a plan, and the process becomes even trickier to navigate.
As a result, those who feel they can’t afford an attorney for estate planning assistance seek other options.
The good news? A broad range of low-cost online services and software options are out there to help you in your planning and in the do-it-yourself creation of certain documents such as wills. These are all considerably lower than the fees charged by lawyers for similar services. In fact, some of the templated documents are available at no cost.
These options may, in fact, be adequate and appropriate if you have modest assets in your name alone, want to leave them to your closest surviving relative, and your overall estate plan is fairly simple and straightforward.
The reality, though, is that you’re likely better off seeking professional help from an attorney, as Dan Koeppel writes in The New York Times:
“This is particularly true for people (with) large estates, lots of possessions or modern blended families (which may involve kids from multiple marriages, second spouses and scattered property). You’ll very likely need more tailored professional help than any software or DIY service can handle.”
Keep in mind, too, that, like anything in life, this isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You may want to consider using some of these online services or software but then have an attorney review your completed plan to your check your work.
This isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You may want to consider using some of these online services or software but then have an attorney review your completed plan to your check your work.
In addition, be a cautious and savvy consumer. Questions have emerged in a few cases as to whether some of these online legal service providers are engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (keep reading to learn more).
The big four: Basic elements of an estate plan
Seniors should have, at a minimum, the four basic estate planning documents: a will, medical power of attorney, financial power of attorney, and an advanced directive or living will, according to Stephen Landersman, a certified financial planner and president of Unifi Advisors.
There may be other documents you want to include, but these are the four major items that will make your estate plan hold up as a legal record after you’re gone. Accordingly, these documents are also the ones to consider when you’re reviewing DIY estate planning options.
5 options for DIY estate planning
Choices abound when it comes to online estate planning services and software products. Here are five options to explore.
Probably the most widely known and advertised service of its kind, this website is primarily geared to helping small businesses with legal- and business-related services. However, it does also offer a fairly extensive array of personal legal products for individuals and families, including an estate planning bundle (starting at $249), last will & testament (starting at $89), living trust (starting at $279), health care power of attorney (starting at $39), financial power of attorney (starting at $35) and living will (starting at $39).
It should be noted that, according to the American Bar Association, LegalZoom has been sued in at least three states (Missouri, North Carolina and Connecticut) for violating those states’ unauthorized practice of law statutes.
This website helps you create, edit, change, update, store and share your estate plan. Prices start at $159 for a will and $599 for a trust.
This online service publishes and sells hundreds of do-it-yourself law guides and products, including Quicken WillMaker & Trust software package. The will and trust products are offered in three bundles: Starter at $99, Plus at $139 and All Access at $209. Nolo also has a Find-a-Lawyer directory that’s organized by legal practice categories and then by states. It includes estate planning as a category.
Law Depot offers more than 150 free legal documents, forms, contracts and templates suitable for use in all 50 states and covers both personal and business-related items. The templates run the gamut: protecting your estate, lending money, managing a rental property, setting up a business and more.
The organization offers a free estate planning kit as a tool for organizing your estate, which covers setting family goals, creating a plan, lessening tax burdens and using trusts. It will also help you keep a digital record of important documents and organize everything in one place, making it easy to update records.
Ultimately, if you’re a senior or caregiver, you can find a range of low-cost and, in some cases, free resources to help you with your estate planning. Just proceed with caution. As several sources advise, especially when dealing with complex estates, it’s best to leave those complexities to the professionals—namely, lawyers.
Finally, as the ABA points out, a prime concern of preparing one’s own estate plan is that using a DIY product can “lull clients into a false sense of security.” That is, they think the final plan or document they’ve prepared is a done deal and will hold up as a legal record after death. That may well be the case, but it’s best to take steps to make sure. As noted, even if you do use one of these DIY products, strongly consider asking an attorney to review your completed plan.