It's amazing what can be accomplished online with just a click of a button - from ordering groceries for delivery to having a virtual doctor's appointment. Services which have been utilized more frequently in recent years include online legal services where legal documents, particularly estate plans, are prepared. While it may seem to be a convenient and low-cost option to quickly secure an estate plan, it may not be the best option for a variety of reasons outlined below.
First and foremost, online services lack the personal touch an attorney can provide. A good estate planning attorney will take the time to learn about their clients' goals and objectives, review the assets, and provide counsel and guidance on the correct structure of the plan and who should be appointed in fiduciary capacities. Additionally, the attorney can be engaged after a death to assist with the estate administration/probate process, and the knowledge gained during the planning process can help the attorney be ready to administer the documents they prepared efficiently and with the client's original goals in mind. In short, there can be no substitute for the fleshing out of personal goals and family dynamics which inevitably impact each and every estate plan.
One of the greatest advantages of working with an attorney to prepare an estate plan is the fact that clients have the opportunity to ask direct questions and spend the time needed to become educated on their choices. Often, one question can lead to another in these important conversations – and the answers are often not captured by robotic, computerized solutions. While some of the online legal document services provide attorney assistance, the user is essentially left on their own to answer a series of questions and prompts to select options they think will fit their needs. Although certain users may have a basic understanding of estate planning, there are many who do not understand the terminology, local laws, and tax regulations. That lack of understanding can lead to a poor estate planning structure and may not accomplish what the user actually intended.
Frequently, unanticipated outcomes occur if legal documents are prepared without a qualified attorney, such as issues with signing formalities for the documents. For example, the person making the Will could sign the document without being in the presence of witnesses or notary or unknowingly request that an individual who is related to the person making the Will serve as a witness. Another mistake we have seen is that options are selected that unintentionally require the Executor to serve with bond or distribute estate assets to unintended parties.
A final consideration relates to the cost of the online services versus working with an attorney. While online services may appear to be less expensive on the “front end” while planning is being done, it can actually be more expensive on the “back end” when the planning needs to be implemented (i.e., after death). That is, poorly drafted documents very often cost more to administer after death due to the strict rules and interpretation of the probate courts in North Carolina and South Carolina.
In sum, not only will working with an attorney lead to greater knowledge and a customized plan, but a relationship and a connection will be formed with an attorney who can be relied upon when questions arise or in a future time of need. Therefore, we strongly encourage those weighing options of who should prepare their estate plan to speak with an attorney.