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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Should You Use a Legal Software System for Estate Planning?

There are a plethora of options available for those wanting to prepare an estate plan with legal software, or an online legal software system. In fact, there are a number of well known personalities who sell their legal software "products" at your local bookstore. Other online services "interview" you, and then provide you with a trust or a will or trust -- often at a fraction of the cost of an attorney.

Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to using any such system in preparing a will or a trust. Consider the benefits and costs of purchasing that legal software CD from your local bookstore rather than hiring an attorney to complete your estate plan. Here are some advantages:

• Your start up cost is relatively low. To use a legal software system you only need a computer, a printer, and some time. The average start up cost of an online legal service or software purchased from the bookstore is substantially less than the cost charged by an attorney.

• You often save time. Obviously, the advantage of time savings will vary from person to person. If you are slow working a computer the time savings will be less, or non-existent. If you are faster, there will be more of a chance of time savings.

• You don't always deal with the consequences. This is a strange "advantage," but it's true. So many people simply don't care about the consequences: It's their heirs' problem. In life, if you screw up a do-it-yourself plumbing job and end up hiring a plumber to fix the mess, you are forced to deal with the consequence. If you try to fix the head gasket on your car and end up having your car towed to the garage to complete the repair (often at multiples of what would have been the original cost had you drove to the shop in the beginning), you must deal with the consequence. This is not always the case with estate planning. Your heirs are often forced to deal with the problems.

• You have more privacy (and you don't have to deal with your shyness). Yes, this is true! To hire an attorney requires opening up to a complete stranger. Many people detest revealing private, personal information to someone they do not know. This reason is perfectly understandable.

• You seem to be in control. Some people like to be in control and feel empowered using an online legal software system rather than hiring an attorney.

Here are some of the disadvantages of buying that legal software CD instead of hiring counsel:

• The relatively low start up cost and time "savings" can also be a disadvantage. This may seem odd, but it is true. The old saying that "you get what you pay for" is so very true, both in life as well as in planning your estate.

• Using these products may cost you more time and more money. Now, I just indicated that you save money and might save time using a legal software system, didn't I? Yes I did. However, "doing it yourself" naturally increases the chance of an error, meaning that you may ultimately spend yet more time and more money to fix it.

• In estate planning the cost of an error usually isn't cheap. If an estate plan gets messed up, it can be quite costly to fix -- assuming that it can be fixed. Some errors simply cannot be fixed because courts are very hesitant to modify the terms of a will or a trust once death occurs or after a trust becomes irrevocable. Many people do not realize this: Even if 1,000 witnesses contradict what is written in the trust or will, after death (or when the trust becomes irrevocable) it can be quite difficult and expensive to change a provision. Also, it is very, very uncertain -- you may spend the fees and still not fix the problem.

• The heirs often bear the consequences. The $1,000 or $2,000 cost to hire an attorney to put an estate plan in place may seem costly now, but it may seem quite cheap later if things go awry. I am aware of one at least one attorney who absolutely loves do-it-yourself legal software and online services: He is often hired to fix errors and he ends up charging much more than what it would have cost to prepare the plan initially.

There are probably other advantages and disadvantages not listed here. However, consider this question before buying any software product or online service: Are you serious about planning your estate, or do you simply want to feel better? If you are serious then it should be done correctly, the first time, with competent counsel.

1 comment:

Melinda Gustafson Gervasi said...

Another advantage of working with an attorney, according to several of my clients, is that working with an attorney means they are more likely to finish the process. I have countless clients who attempted to do an estate plan on their own, but it kept getting pushed to the side. Working with me meant they had someone to usher them through the process. If you tend to procrastinate, then working with an attorney might be a wise choice.