If you want to, you can go it alone. Or almost alone. You can devise your own estate plan without the benefit of lawyers or other trained advisors. All you need is a credit card, a computer, a printer, and access to the Internet, and you can come up with a set of documents that may or may not accomplish what you think they will accomplish. The problem is that you will never know. The ultimate success or the failure of an estate plan is rarely revealed during the lifetime of the planmaker. (No, planmaker is not a real word, but you know what I mean.)
You have seen the commercials. You have heard the radio ads. But before you go to a website to have your estate plan constructed by a computer program, be sure to ask yourself this: Do you really believe that a brilliant lawyer or a highly-paid radio personality who hawks these kinds of programs would trust a website to come up with an estate plan for himself and his family? If it’s not good enough for them, why would it be good enough for you? You may not have as large an estate as Mr. Fancyshmancylawyer or Mr. Radiobucks, but everything you own is everything you own, and it probably makes a difference to you whether it goes where you want it to go after you are gone. It probably also makes a difference to you who will make medical treatment decisions on your behalf if there is ever a time when you can’t make them yourself. Do you want your hand-picked decisionmaker talking with your doctor as you lay there unable to speak, or are you willing to leave it to chance as to who steps up to the plate?
You may be thinking, “You’re a lawyer who makes his living putting together estate plans for clients. Of course you don’t like those legal websites. They cut into your bottom line.” Well, not really. A large portion of my practice involves fixing estate plans prepared by other lawyers. A growing portion of my practice involves fixing estate plans prepared over the Internet. The problem with computer-driven estate plans is that in the real world, more often than not, they don’t work. An effective estate plan involves far more than a set of documents, even very well drawn documents that would stand up in any court in the land. For one thing, wouldn’t it be better to have an estate plan that will help you and your family stay out of court altogether? Going to court is not the end of the world, but it can be a royal pain. I would sincerely prefer that you get your plan right the first time, and that you make sure that it continues to work according to your wishes in light of changes in your health, your stuff, the law, and the list of people you like and trust. I’d much rather make my living by helping to create estate plans that work, than by helping families in crisis make the best of plans that missed the mark.
Bottom line: There is a lot of really good information on the Internet. There is also a lot of misinformation. Do you have the training and background to tell one from the other when it comes to putting your estate plan in order? If so, knock yourself out, Professor. If not, there is something to be said for working with a live professional instead of an impersonal website that cares more about your credit card authorization than about what happens to you and your stuff if you become incapacitated or die.