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Online wills...cost savers, or potential pitfalls?

Online legal resources are becoming more and more popular.  Do a Google search for "online wills" or "online estate plan" and you're likely to see dozens of options that range in price and quality.  But how do you know whether an online will is right for you?  And if an online estate plan is right for you, how do you decide which one to go with?  Here's some tips to help you figure it out.

Online wills are right for many, but not all

Online wills are a perfect resource for a lot of people.  But most people don't know whether it is really doing what they want and need.  And there really is no way of knowing this until it's too late.  That's why it's important to understand whether doing a will online is a good option for you.  Here's a checklist to help you decide:

An online will may be right for you if:

  • you don't have many assets
  • you are single
  • you're married and don't have kids from a previous relationship
  • you don't own any small business (including rental property)
  • you're a do-it-yourself kind of person
  • you're comfortable completing online forms
  • you don't have a lot of questions about your estate planning needs

However, an online will is not the best option for you if:

  • you have a lot of assets (totaling $5,000,000.00 or more)
  • you have a blended family (meaning you're married and either you or your spouse has kids from a previous marriage)
  • you own a small business
  • you own real property in any state other than your residence
  • you have very specific needs related to how your property is distributed when you pass away
  • you have a child that has special needs
  • you have a lot of questions about how property passes when you die

Online wills come in all shapes and sizes

Not all wills are created equal.  And online wills are no different.  Some businesses, like Carole Callaghan Law, offer package deals such as their Texas Online Estate Planning tool, where you get not only your will, but other key estate documents such as a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney, directives to physicians (sometimes called a living will), and other key documents.  Others only offer wills or offer multiple documents on an a la carte basis.  Some have data input operators creating your documents, while others offer wills drafted by a licensed attorney.

When deciding what online system to use, consider a few key points:

First, all wills should be state specific, and if they aren't, steer clear.  Having a generic will that is not specific to the state you live in could cost your loved ones thousands of extra dollars when you pass away.

Second, try to find a will that is drafted by an actual attorney (who is licensed in the state you live in).  When you hire an attorney, even if it's online, that attorney has a legal responsibility to provide you with acceptable services.  Non-attorney businesses aren't held to such a standard.

Finally, make sure that you are getting everything you need, and that you understand the real cost.  Wills are important, but so are the other documents.  Many services advertise low prices, but only for wills.  If you want all of the documents that you need for a comprehensive estate plan, you will have to pay extra per document.  And those extras can add up, fast.  At a minimum, you need a will, a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney, directives to physicians, and a HIPAA release.  If you aren't able to get all of those documents, move on to a business who offers them all.

Texas Online Wills...is it important that it's specific?

There are many options out there that are not specific to a state, but you should look for options that are.  This is because when you pass away, your will has to be probated.  Probate is the process of having a court approve of the will and officially appoint the executor who is named in the will.  Every state has different rules when it comes to probate, and having a will that is state-specific can end up saving your loved ones hundreds to thousands of dollars in probate costs.

For example, a Texas will must have specific language in what is called the "self-proving affidavit."  If this language is not present, the court will require that you do a lot of extra work to prove that the will is valid.  And more work means more expense.  A Texas online estate plan, just like a plan created in person with an attorney, should have state-specific language in the will...and in all of the other documents.  Furthermore, the process of signing the will is different from state to state.  An online will in Texas still requires two witnesses and a notary in order to be considered "self-proved."  A non-Texas business may not provide you with adequate instructions on how to sign the documents so that they are effective according to the state laws.

So when looking for an online will provider, make sure that you pick an attorney who is licensed in Texas (or in whatever state you live in).  Key things to look for are terms such as "Texas Online Will" or "Texas Online Estate Plan."  If you see those, you're probably dealing with a Texas business.  Another smart move is to check out the attorney on the Texas Bar website.  There, you can make sure that the attorney who is drafting your will is actually licensed in Texas.  The site also provides contact information, practice areas, and a report of any disciplinary history that the attorney may have.

In short, trying to decide if an online estate plan is best for you can be difficult.  And figuring out which option is the best value can be even harder.  But taking the time to consider these things can mean the difference between easing the burden on your family and loved one when you pass away, and leaving them high and dry.

 
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