Can you write your own Will? Sure, Arizona law (like laws in many other states) allows you to write your wishes in your own handwriting and sign it. Such a DIY estate plan could be perfectly valid.
You also can find all kinds of forms online not only for estate plans but for other legal proceedings. We were recently fed an ad for “Ez-Probate,” a website that purports to prepare probate documents for any state. The website small print says: “EZ-Probate does not provide legal advice, nor are we attorneys. We simply help you fill out publicly available forms and provide you with publicly available information. If you think you need legal advice please consult a licensed attorney.” That same fine print is true of “legal document preparers,” too; they do not give legal advice but only prepare what you tell them to. The DIY estate plan might look easy, but there’s more to it than a form.
Legal Service Is More Than Reading the Document
If you fill out or have those forms prepared and bring them to our office, can we review them to see if they will work for a fraction of our usual fee? No, not usually. The reason is that it’s not that much less work, and often can be more. How can that be? To quote Robert B. Fleming from last week’s newsletter article: “Lawyers don’t sell documents. We talk with you about what is important, and we work to memorialize your wishes.”
When you pay for a lawyer’s services, the drafting of the document that you take home is the result of a process that involves more than typing in names and addresses and hitting “print.” Most of what you pay for is the advice, the expertise to ask the questions that need to be asked to determine what strategy is best for your unique situation.
When your car isn’t running, you may find the solution on YouTube. But most often you’ll want a mechanic to pinpoint what you need and get the parts installed correctly. If you are sick, you rely on a doctor to determine what’s wrong and get you the treatment you need. You are paying for more than the car part or the prescription, just as you are paying for more than document when you hire an estate planning or probate attorney.
Consider also that, especially with your estate plan, it’s important to get it right. It is the expression of your final wishes. If there are errors or ambiguities, you will not be here to fix it or clarify.
Providing Legal Advice Is a Process, Not a Task
When potential clients come to Fleming & Curti (and many other firms that provide estate planning), they are asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire prior to the appointment. Then we spend an hour, often longer, talking about family, finances, desires, concerns. An estate planning meeting also includes discussion about preparing for what happens in the event of incapacity during life. We may talk about children or other relatives and their challenges with addiction, creditor, marriages, or disabilities. We’ll talk about pets and how to provide for them.
If someone has died and a probate might be needed, we’ll first determine whether a court proceeding is really needed. (Often it’s not.) And if it is, we’ll talk about not just the forms but also the family dynamics, the nature of the assets, how to deal with creditors, the rights of beneficiaries, and the duties and risks of administering an estate.
Unfamiliar DIY Estate Plan = More Work
Then there are the forms. We know what our documents say and why. They have been developed over years and years of practice, refined over time as laws or client preferences change and shift. If we’re presented with an unfamiliar, DIY estate plan, we will spend a good deal of time interpreting what they mean, ensuring all of the necessary parts are there, and trying to decipher what you meant when you created them. We would require a meeting like our new client meeting to delve into your assets, your wishes, and whether the documents effectively capture your desires.
With self-drafted documents, there is almost always something amiss. Common problems include failing to include contingent beneficiaries or failing to include protections for minors or other vulnerable beneficiaries. A self-drafted plan almost always needs some retooling. The result is a higher overall expense of money, time, and effort than if the client had started with our process from the beginning.
So when we say no, we’re not going to review the DIY estate plan you just printed from LegalZoom for a fraction of our usual fee, it’s not so much that we’re anti-LegalZoom. We’re signaling that this is one area where doing even part of it yourself may not be the best idea.
On November 20, 2023, we received an unsolicited (read: SPAM) email from an online document preparation company asking why they weren’t included in our list of DIY online providers to avoid. We’re sorry, FastWill. We should have mentioned you as yet another company to avoid. We appreciate your concern, and wonder about your algorithms. And special props to Public Relations person (he doesn’t say whether he’s in charge or just works in the department) Justin Davis for asking us so personally and kindly.
A quick look at FastWill’s website indicates that they have a “special” deal: for an extra $99, you can have your machine-drafted estate plan reviewed by an actual attorney. We’re familiar enough with the economics of law practice to be doubtful that the attorney can make more than a cursory review of the drafts. It also doesn’t appear that the attorney will meet with, interview or have any contact with you before telling you that the machine drafted a great estate plan. We say pass on this arrangement.