By Joe Pujol
Last week, we shared the first part of this series on the dangers of do-it-yourself estate planning. Here, we’ll look at how online legal documents can even put your minor children at risk.
Given how far web-based technology has evolved, you might think online legal document services like LegalZoom® and WillsandTrusts.com have advanced to the point where they’re a suitable alternative to having your estate plan prepared by a lawyer.
After all, you’ve been able to prepare and file your taxes online for years, so what makes estate planning so much different? Aren’t lawyers using the very same forms you find on these document websites?
This kind of reasoning is exactly what do-it-yourself (DIY) planning services would like you to believe—but it’s far from true. Indeed, relying on generic, fill-in-blank planning documents can be one of the costliest planning mistakes you can make for your loved ones.
Online planning documents may appear to save you time and money, but keep in mind, just because you created “legal” documents doesn’t mean they will actually work when you (or most importantly, the people you love) need them. Without a thorough understanding of how the legal process works and impacts family dynamics upon your death or incapacity, you’ll likely make serious mistakes when creating a DIY plan.
Even worse, these mistakes won’t be discovered until it’s too late—and the loved ones you were trying to protect will be the very ones forced to clean up your mess or get stuck with a huge nightmare. In part one, we discussed the numerous ways DIY estate planning can go wrong, and here we’ll explain how these generic documents can put the people you love most of all—your children—at risk.
Knowing that your DIY plan could fail and force your family into court and conflict is distressing enough. But imagine how you’d feel if you knew that your attempt to save money on your estate plan caused your children to be taken into the care of strangers, even temporarily.
Yet this is exactly what could happen if you rely on a generic will and/or other legal documents you find online to name legal guardians for your kids. In fact, this could happen even if you create a plan with a lawyer who isn’t trained to plan for the unique needs of parents with minor children.
Naming and legally documenting guardians for your kids might seem like a fairly straightforward process, but it entails a number of complexities most people aren’t aware of. Even lawyers with decades of experience typically make at least one of six mistakes when naming long-term legal guardians.
If estate plans created with the assistance of an attorney are likely to leave your children at risk, do you really think that you’re going to get things right on your own?
Some DIY wills allow you to name legal guardians for your kids in the event of your death, and that’s a good start. But does it allow you to name back-up candidates in case your first choice is unable to serve?
If you named a married couple to serve and one of them is unavailable due to injury, death, or divorce, what happens then? Would it still be okay if only one of them can serve as your child’s guardian? And does it matter which one it is?
What would happen if you become incapacitated by illness or injury and are unable to care for your kids? You might assume the guardians named in your DIY will would automatically get custody, but did you know that a will only goes into effect upon your death and does nothing to protect your kids in the event of your incapacity?
Do the guardians you named live far from your home? If so, how long would it take them to make it to your house to pick up your kids: a few days, a few weeks? Who would care for your kids until those guardians arrive? Did you know that without legally binding arrangements for the immediate care of your children, they are likely to be placed with child protective services until those guardians arrive?
Even if you name family who live nearby as guardians, what happens if they are out of town or otherwise can’t get to your kids right away?
And assuming the guardians you named can immediately get to your home to pick up your kids, do they even know where your will is located? How will they prove they’re your children’s legal guardians if they can’t find your planning documents?
These are just a few of the potential complications that could arise if you try to create your own plan naming legal guardians for your kids. And if just one of these contingencies were to occur, your children would more than likely be placed into the care of strangers, even if it’s only for a short period of time.
Seeing all of the things that could go wrong, you should never trust the safety and care of your children to a DIY plan—or for that matter, a plan created by a lawyer unfamiliar with the unique needs of planning for parents of minor children. To ensure your children are never raised by someone you don’t trust or taken into the custody of strangers, even temporarily, consider creating a Kids Protection Plan®.
The Kids Protection Plan® is a comprehensive system designed specifically to address the inherent gaps in the way most estate plans document legal guardians. And Personal Family Lawyers® like us, licensed by the Family Wealth Planning Institute, creator of the Kids Protection Plan®, are the only ones thoroughly trained to prepare and counsel you through this crucial process.
Guaranteeing your children’s safety is so important, we’ve even created an easy-to-use (and absolutely free) website you can visit right now to get started creating the legal documents naming the long-term guardians you’d want to care for your children if you could not.
If you have minor children at home, you should immediately use this resource to get started. And, yes, it’s DIY, but it’s the bare minimum you need to have in place if you have minor children, and it at least addresses some of the issues written about above, which is more than most DIY programs do.
From there, you can schedule a follow-up visit with us to put the full Kids Protection Plan® in place for you and your family.
The inherent risks of DIY estate plans make them a totally unsuitable option for nearly everyone. Perhaps the only scenario where they might make sense is if you are single and have no—or extremely limited—assets, and you’re just looking to name someone to make your medical and/or financial decisions if ever become incapacitated and are unable to do so for yourself.
Creating those documents is a relatively simple process that should be easy enough to do on your own. However, that’s really the only instance where online legal documents would be sufficient. In practically every other situation, the fill-in-blank forms offered by these companies are so unreliable, they’re often not worth the paper they’re printed on.
The DIY approach might be a good idea if you’re looking to build a new deck for your backyard, but when it comes to estate planning, it’s one of the worst choices you can make. Are you really willing to put your family’s well-being and wealth at risk just to save a few bucks?
If you’ve yet to do any planning, contact us to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session. This evaluation will allow us to determine if a simple will or some other strategy, such as a living trust, is your best option.
If you’ve already created a plan—whether it’s a DIY job or one created with another lawyer’s help—contact us to schedule an Estate Plan Review and Check-Up. We’ll ensure your plan is not only properly drafted and updated, but that it has all of the protections in place to prevent your children from ever being placed in the care of strangers or anyone you’d never want raising them.
Proper estate planning can keep your family out of conflict, out of court, and out of the public eye. If you’re ready to create a comprehensive estate plan, contact us to schedule your Family Wealth Planning Session. Even if you already have a plan in place, we will review it and help you bring it up to date to avoid heartache for your family. Schedule online today.