So you’re thinking about “writing up your own will,” maybe on one of those do-it-yourself legal websites, because a will is just a “simple document” that can be put together in a few minutes. After all, why pay for an overpriced lawyer to fill in the blanks when you can just fill out a web form?
The law is complex
Well, here is the best reason I can give: The law is a complex area in which certain actions trigger certain results. Some actions trigger results that are planned and exactly what we desire, like when we enter into a contract with someone who agrees to perform work in exchange for a fee. In this case, both parties have made the decision that the agreement is beneficial to their particular needs: the painter’s need for income is balanced by the homeowner’s need for a freshly painted house.
On the other hand, some actions trigger results that are less beneficial, and are not at all what was intended. Case in point: Certain rules that govern estate planning or business entity formation, if not followed properly, can lead to unintended consequences.
Just because you can do it yourself, doesn’t mean you should
So while it is possible for you to write your own will or set up your own limited liability company, in my opinion, the DIY option is less advisable in more complicated situations or when your goals are not so cut-and-dry. If you are so inclined to use a do-it-yourself legal website, how would you even know which options would accomplish what you want?
For instance, maybe you’ve read somewhere that trusts are a good way to provide for your minor children. This can generally be a good idea. But should you include the trust as part of your will (called a ‘testamentary trust’), or should you create a living trust, and then use a will to pour your assets over into the trust when you die? There are pros and cons for each of these options.
Now, I’m sure those do-it-yourself legal websites give you these options as part of their automated input forms. But without being able to ask follow-up questions or to apply these options to your unique situation, the option you choose could very will come down to a 50-50 mouse click – all because you’re eager to get to the next screen. No matter that there are legal ramifications to choosing among the different options.
The value of an attorney is legal knowledge
Having said that, when you meet with an attorney to discuss your estate planning goals or to help you figure out which legal entity your new business should take, what you are ultimately paying for is legal knowledge custom-tailored to your specific needs. Unlike a computer program, you can actually engage in a back-and-forth discussion with someone who is knowledgeable not only about the law, but about how the law might be applied to your individual set of facts.
While the computer program is designed to ask you a series of relevant questions depending on which document you choose to purchase, the conversation you have with an attorney is going to consist of some of those same questions. But an important distinction cannot be overlooked: the attorney will have the ability to recognize any red flags that might come to light as a result of the dynamic conversation, and would be able to adjust the questioning and make recommendations based on this new piece of information.
Mistakes can be costly
Also understand that while you can use a do-it-yourself legal website to create these documents yourself, it is very easy to make a mistake. If those mistakes affect your business pursuits, you may end up paying more in legal fees down the line to try to correct those errors than what you think you are saving by doing it yourself. But when those mistakes form the foundation of your estate plan, in all likelihood it is your family who will be left to clean up the mess.
By all means, if you are sure about the legal services you need, and you are certain that a particular legal document is sufficient for serving that need, then continue on to one of the many do-it-yourself legal websites. But remember, mistakes, omissions and ambiguities might lead you to regret your decision. And as they say – ignorance of the law is no excuse.