A living trust transfers control of your property to a trust while you are alive. You may serve as trustee; a successor takes over after you die. A will takes effect after you die; an executor administers the distribution of your estate. Many people consider do-it-yourself forms or online software programs to draft their own living trusts and last wills. It may be possible to construct a valid document that distributes your estate according to your wishes. However, experts generally agree that beyond the most uncomplicated circumstances, saving money with a do-it-yourself-will or trust may produce unintended, detrimental consequences.
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Do-It-Yourself Forms and Programs
Many do-it-yourself forms and computer programs use a fill-in-the-blank format. It's up to the user to choose the proper form for her particular circumstances. Some forms and programs are specialized for certain states, but otherwise the user is left to his own devices. Properly utilizing these forms depends on knowing which questions apply to a particular circumstance. Knowledge of current estate law is also important. The program or document should reflect important changes in the law, for instance, the elimination of federal estate taxes for 2010.
Attorney-Assisted Forms and Programs
Some online services offer-state specific do-it-yourself forms and programs for wills and living trusts bundled with advice from attorneys licensed to practice law in the state for which the form applies. These services also offer an option to contact an attorney by email with specific questions that arise during the preparation of the form for a small additional fee.
The major advantage to do-it-yourself forms is the price. As of December 2010, costs range from $19.95 to $225, with an option to contact an attorney priced as low as $30 above the fee for the basic package, according to Bankrate.com. For single individuals with modest estates and a clear idea of where they want their money to go, do-it-yourself wills can provide a viable option. For a young family faced with few bills, no health problems and $1,000 to spend, purchasing a term life insurance policy makes more financial sense than hiring an attorney to draft a will, according to Janet Novack of Forbes magazine. Online programs also allow users to maintain their privacy. Although attorneys are bound by attorney-client privilege, it can be difficult to discuss particularly sensitive circumstances. Online programs also allow users to consider different options without making a final commitment.
Risks and Limitations
The risk of making a mistake with a do-it-yourself will is very high. Even small errors can invalidate the entire document, which subjects the estate to intestacy laws, according to Deborah Jacobs of Forbes magazine. This is especially true with living trusts, according to Bankrate.com. Another problem is that standardized wills and online programs are just that -- standardized. In many cases, they fail to address significant circumstances, according to Elder Law Answers. In particular, gay couples, families with special needs children, a couple with one or more partners born outside the United States and anyone who owns property outside the jurisdiction should not consider a do-it-yourself will, Bankrate.com warns.
References & Resources
- Bankrate.com: Estate Planning -- DIY or Pro?
- Bankrate.com: Do-It-Yourself Wills Online
- Forbes: The Case for Do-It-Yourself Wills; Janet Novack; September 7, 2010
- Forbes: The Case Against Do-It-Yourself Wills; Deborah L. Jacobs; September 7, 2010
- Elder Law Answers: Letting a Computer Plan Your Estate -- Is It Worth the Risk?
- Bankrate.com: Preparing a Will
- University of Maryland University College: Trusts
- University of Maryland University College: Probate and the Executor of a Will
- FindLaw: Living Trust
- Alzheimer's Association: Legal Plans
- American Bar Association: ABA Guide to Wills and Estates
- The Free Legal Dictionary: Will
- The Free Legal Dictionary: Living Trust
- National Institute on Aging: Legal and Financial Planning for People with Alzheimer's Disease
- My State Will: Intestacy Calculators