Ask Jesse: Are there risks involved in using an online site to create your own Last Will & Testament?

Hi, Jesse! I know you are an attorney and you guys are fans of Dave Ramsey. I saw Dave Ramsey’s website has a link for a recommended site for doing your own Last Will & Testament. I would appreciate your opinion on how to go about setting up a will, including guardianship/trustee for children.

I have heard attorneys say those online ones can have inaccuracies which would make the whole document void. I definitely need some guidance in this and I don’t want to go cheap just to save money on something so important. The one attorney I asked for a price said it would cost $900-$1000 to set this up and that sounded like a lot! Thank you! -Beth

Hi Beth,

Whether someone can or should do their own will with a kit or with a discount online company is one of the questions I get most often. And you touch on one of the main reasons that I discourage it generally: the possibility of mistake.

Every estate is different. In addition, every state is different. As such, it is my opinion that if someone is looking at getting a will or estate plan done, they should at the very least talk to a qualified professional who can offer help or some sort of direction.

For some background, Last Wills and Testaments have been around for hundreds of years for devising property to subsequent generations. Generally, it was a matter of common law, or tradition, as to what laws applied and what didn’t.

As we developed as a country, the various states developed its own laws pertaining to land and property within its own state and what constituted the proper documentation to make the transfers. In Kansas, for instance, anyone making a will must have it witnessed by two people and must attest to it, stating before a notary that the will expresses their desires. If it is handwritten and notarized, it is improper and will be invalidated.

Each state is different. There are some states where these handwritten wills (called “holographic”) are fine and will be honored. This said, many of the kits and discount websites are geared toward specific states and, at the very least, should meet the minimums necessary to be valid.

This, though, brings me to my second objection: lack of personal attention. Everyone has individual needs and circumstances for planning and goals and just filling in blanks on a website or on a form is very impersonal and consultation with a legal professional that is knowledgeable in this area may highlight issues not addressed by these kits and sites.

It seems Congress is constantly changing the estate tax threshold, which no doubt is good for business for the high-end estate planners. Nonetheless, it is my opinion that everyone needs to know exactly what they have and exactly where they want it to go and choose whatever route is best for you and your family.  I will caution that you to be careful not to get overcharged or up-sold for these services, though, and shop around.

Jesse Paine is a licensed attorney who owns his own law firm. He’s married to Crystal and is the numbers nerd of the MoneySavingMom.com team! If you have a question you’d like him to answer in a future column, you can submit it here.

The content of this column intended for informational use only and is not to be construed as providing legal, investing, accounting, or other professional advice. Your situation is factually specific and you should accordingly seek qualified professional counsel concerning your specific legal, investing or accounting needs.

photo from Big Stock

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Comments

  1. Jenny says

    We went through an attorney and I’m really happy that we did. She asked us questions that were specific to our situation – questions that we had never considered and hadn’t come up on the online site we considered. My brother used an online site and his will doesn’t address these issues, which could end up causing problems in the future. After comparing our wills, he is going to redo his with an attorney.

  2. says

    Like life insurance, a will is not something to take lightly. I think it is well worth it to pay a attorney to create it for you, it is in investment in the future of your kids!

  3. Fay says

    Sometimes your work benefits plan will offer Legal Services. You just pay a nominal amount monthly like life insurance etc and you get free Legal Services. We had a Trust, will and power of attoreny Setup through an attorney and it was all free because we had the benefits from work.

  4. says

    My husband and I argued about this for a long time. It actually kept us from doing anything for over a year. I finally agreed to it because I figured doing an online will is better than none at all. In the future I hope we can do a formal will with an attorney but for some people the cost is not feasible.

    • Jaimi says

      My husband and I made our will and testament using Suze Ormans program. According to North Carolina law, it should be witnessed by two people and notarized. Our problem is that we can’t find a notary that will notarize it. Has anyone else encountered this problem?

      • Emily says

        I bought Suze’s will and testament program, but we never actually ended up doing it ourselves. It seemed like too much work. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t get to it.

      • Em says

        secretaries at schools and churches are sometimes notaries, also at the secretary of state office.

      • Jen says

        Our local bank has a notary, and since our accounts are there, we can use the service for free anytime. Ask if your bank has a notary.

        • Jaimi says

          We asked all of the banks (3) notaries that we use and others that we don’t , hospitals, etc. They all said they can not notorized wills but could not explain to us why. We were wondering if attorneys put a stop to it so that they get more business?

          • Bridget says

            I don’t like notarizing anything I didn’t prepare because I don’t want to be associated with any colossal mistake in the document. And what if I see a misake that I know makes the will invalid, yet you’re not asking for my help and not paying for help, so should I help you or not?

            Also if the will is contested later on, the person who notarized it may have to testify. Who wants to do that, especially if you didn’t have anything to do with preparing the document?

            At leat attorneys get paid a full price with full knowledge that they could end up in court over a contested will in the future. I think notaries who are not attornies just don’t want to get envolved because it’s not worth the potential trouble later on.

            • Glo says

              Aren’t notaries just saying they witnessed the person sign the document? Wouldn’t be responsible for the document itself?

              • Bridget says

                I wouldn’t be responsible but it would make me look like an idiot, like I should have noticed that mistake and yet I didn’t. Notaries should know how to make a valid will -even if they aren’t being asked to write it, they should know how and should be able to spot mistakes. So I feel like it would damage my reputation, if there were an obvious error and I notarized it anyway.

              • peg says

                Notary’s are just verifying that the people signing are who they say they are. Notary’s do not verify the contents of any document, just the identity of the signer.

  5. Mary says

    If you are military you can go to the JAG office and have a will drafted for you for FREE under the direction of military lawyers.

  6. lauramich says

    YES, there are risks.

    My father made some critical mistakes on his. Thankfully, we took everything to a probate attorney (exactly what my lawyer-hating father didn’t want!) and got it checked out; she said his DIY will wouldn’t pass muster in court. Even more thankfully, we dug around and found a will dated from 1976 that had been done legally and properly—and the court accepted it.

    Why this caused extra grief for me: The 1976 will named my mother as the executor and my grandmother as alternate. Both predeceased my father. His DIY will had named me as the executor. With the old will in effect, I had to jump through extra hoops to be named executor, including providing death certificates for Mom and Grandma (thankfully—again!—I had them) and have my estranged half-siblings agree to the arrangement. And until I was named executor, just about everything involved in closing the estate was on hold, including filing my dad’s taxes for that year—I had to pay, but I had to file an extension until the appointment came through.

    The plural of anecdote is not data, but I say pay the money and do it right.

  7. Jennifer says

    Please don’t do a will or any other legal work without an attorney. Those “shake and bake” legal forms have too many holes.

  8. Nichole says

    If you an an EAP (employee assistance program) where you work it might be worth a call. I recently called mine and got a referral and found out that I qualify for a free 30 minute consult (over phone or in person) and a 25% discount. I haven’t set up the appointment yet as we’re still “shopping around” and doing our homework.

    Is there a going rate for a simple will, POA and guardianship papers? How do you know if you’re being asked to pay to much?

    • Suzanne says

      Our State Employees Credit Union offers estate planning services with an attorney at an affordable flat rate. We were able to have our wills prepared with trusts setup for our children at a much more affordable cost than if we had gone to an attorney on our own. Maybe there are other credit unions that offer similar services.

  9. Nichole says

    What a timely topic! After the recent passing of a family member and seeing the stress having died without a will caused my husband and I are on a mission to get ours done.

    I recently called my EAP (employee assistance program) and found out that they offer legal referals. I got the name of an attorney close to my home and told I could get a free 30 minute consult (over phone or in person) and a 25% discount. Since we’re still doing our homework and researching estate planning my question is what is the going rate for a simple basic will, guardianship papers? I assume it varies by state/region, but is there an amount that is just too high?

    I’ve also read that parents should consider transfering the title of house to a trust to help aviod probabte. Any thoughts? Thank you

  10. Amanda B. says

    GREAT REPLY – this being said by a legal assistant for an estate attorney :-) Another point that could be made is that when you hire an attorney to do work for you it may be a little more costly, but you develop a relationship that can extend beyond preparation of the will. It is nice to have an attorney to call on when you have other questions not relating to your will. We have a lot of clients that know they can call with questions anytime and the attorney is more than happy to talk with them, most of the time for free! That is service you can’t get from the internet :-)

  11. Laura Kennedy says

    As an estate planning attorney, thank you for addressing online wills and making the points that you did. I would also point out that an integral part of estate planning is also planning in the event of incapacity. One should not overlook the importance of powers of attorney, medical directives and naming guardians in the event both parents are incapacitated.

  12. Martina says

    we do not have a will because of the cost, you suppose to update it every time something major changes in ur life, with having a new baby every other year.. well we just dont have the money.

    • Mandy W says

      We had an entire estate plan drafted last year. It was so worth it and has brought great piece of mind. At the time, we didnt know if we were done having kids so our lawyer drafted the language in a way that if we did have more kids they would be covered without the need to have a whole new package created. As a side note, 8 months later I ended up in emergency surgery. I cant tell you how grateful I was to know that we had a plan in place!
      Hope that helps!

    • August says

      So many people say they can’t afford to get a will, but how can you not? It’s an expense that is crucial to the life you built and your family. Hand drafting a will id crazy in my opinion, simply because of all the laws are always changing.

      As a paralegal, I can’t think of a document more important. My husband and I both got wills made recently and it was only $250 for both!

    • August says

      Sorry, didn’t mean to comment on yours.

      On another note, you can have your will say all future children. We did.

  13. Krista says

    How much is reasonable to pay for a will? We are in Chicago and were quoted $3,000 to do a will (we’re currently in residency, have 3 children and don’t own property or anything more than our vehicles and what is in our apartment). When we called an attorney in a smaller town by where I’m from, they quoted us $300. That seems like a huge difference! What is a reasonable price? Thanks!

    • Anna says

      We paid $500 (a lawyer in a town of about 25,000) for wills, power of attorney, and living wills for both my husband and I. We visited the lawyers office at least twice, spending quite a bit of time talking about various issues and decisions, so I thought that was a reasonable rate. I would say $3,000 seems like WAY too much.

    • Malissa says

      I find it interesting that Dave Ramsey suggests it and this article says no.

      If Dave Ramsey’s advice is so wonderful and he’s so trustworthy then why not listen to him on this?

      • Busy Mama says

        For the very reason clearly articulated above. One size does not fit all, and the expense (often less than $500) is well worth knowing the product and service you purchased will meet your needs. It is too easy to make mistakes in the legal arena which may cause major stress down the road. Better to things correctly the first time.

        • Malissa says

          I’m just saying I don’t think Dave Ramsey hands out bad advice. If it was a true problem, I don’t think he’d suggest them.

          • Emily says

            I think it’s just a matter of opinion on what you think is bad advice. I personally think a couple of Dave Ramsey’s suggestions regarding finances are bad advice that I would never follow, but I know many people do follow his advice.

    • kay says

      The smaller cost is reasonable. When we did our will, we called several lawyers and asked up front for an estimate. Most offices have a set price for what a package (will and POA and living will) should cost. If you have a lot of strange circumstances (setting up trusts, specifying things for or against family members–like for estrangement) costs may rise, because it takes more time for the lawyer to consult with you and draw the details up. However most people can get a basic will from a law office, set up guardianship, etc for a reasonable fee, because it doesn’t vary much from any other will the lawyer draws up. Ours was done five years ago. We called around and paid only about three hundred. I am sure in a larger city, the cost is probably higher, though.

  14. Ashley says

    I highly recommend Christians to consider Christian Law Association. We had a great experience with them. They have an incredible ministry and are truly able to be trusted. Their prices are good. christianlaw.org

  15. Rachel says

    It does pay to do some calling around. We were able to find a lawyer who would do the closing on our house and also to do our wills. As an added bonus, once we paid the upfront cost for our 1st will, he will update them for no additional charge. We’ve only updated with each child, but our wills do include language that will include each child we have, even if they are not mentioned by name.

  16. says

    We have our wills, Financial POA’s and our health care POA’s done. We used a lawyer because we were choosing non-family members for our health care back ups. We are Catholic and our family is not. It just made sense to have another devout Catholic that would follow Church teaching when it came to issues regarding if food and water should be provided, etc.

    I think if you are young and don’t have too many complications, it’s probably ok to use an online service. If you have a more complicated estate go with a lawyer. If you are worried about having to update your will every time you have another child, ask your lawyer to put language in the will that covers additional children. In our will, we have language that covers any pets that we may have at the time of death. We have a friend that runs a rescue and would make sure our dog went to a good home. Our estate documents were done for around $500.Our estate is very simple, provide for children, pets, rest to charity. If we went with a trust I’m sure it would have been more expensive.

    If you can’t afford to get your documents done at the very least make sure your friends and family are well aware of your wishes. Write your wishes down and e-mail a copy to friends and family. This is especially important when it comes to medical care. I’ve seen far too many people stress out over what they think their loved one may have wanted.

  17. says

    The BIGGEST thing to consider is this: what is legal in one state isn’t very effective in another. Sure you can write up a will in Wisconsin – but it’s revocable (meaning, it can be withdrawn, litigated against, disputed, etc). An irrevocable trust (which is what my attorney and myself recommend – I’m a certified paralegal) allows you to bypass that worry of, “Will my will be disputed?” My husband and I have an irrevocable trust, POA, POH, guardianship and a family trust for our kids – it would be $1500 where we work, but personally…money well spent, much like life insurance.

    Do it right – don’t use those online programs.

    • says

      You would be seriously surprised, Jenny. It can be a simple mistake, misuse of verbiage (people often NAME their children instead of using the word “issue”, for example, when they do their own. If all children aren’t named by the decedent, only those named inherit, etc.)

      It doesn’t come down to an attorney “just wanting $500″. It’s kind of offensive to think that people think that way – they are trying to help people plan for their end of life expenses, estate, etc. They’re doing their job…just like an accountant, a teacher, or a doctor, and they deserve to be paid accordingly. :/

      • says

        But the exact same thing would happen if you want to leave different kids different amounts and you didn’t make a new will when you had another one.

        There’s also no guarantee that a given lawyer is any good at his job. I don’t hate lawyers–my grandfather was a lawyer–but you can’t substitute hiring a lawyer for doing your own due diligence. A properly written will by a reasonably knowledgeable person can be obtained through LegalZoom or a similar service fairly easily. You shouldn’t sign anything you don’t fully understand, however.

    • August says

      I have to agree with Andrea on this. As a paralegal, you would be amazed at how easy it is to void an entire will on “one mistake”. Writing your own will isn’t always allowed anyway, and even if it is, it can always be contested for different reasons (mom left son A more than son B. Son B says that his mom told him last week that she wanted to change it, blah blah blah).

      I would highly suggest an attorney over something like legalzoom (you don’t meet them face to face). We had a “simple will” and our attorney was fantastic. I would never trust a random company to handle my children’s futures over someone who actually went to college for multiple years and was sitting right in front of me getting my info.

  18. Jennifer says

    Thank you very much for this advice. After my son’s birth I plan on having a will made.

  19. Meg says

    My late father had a do-it-yourself will.

    He passed away over a year ago, and we are still in probate. The estate is going to be out thousands of dollars extra because of extra hours our attorney has had to spend and a g.a.l we had to hire for our children (long story). We will be lucky if there is much of anything left.

    Please, go invest in an attorney’s help.

    The problem with a do it yourself will is you don’t know what you don’t know. I know my father thought some of the language he used meant something different than it really did. Another issue was that a law had changed from the time he wrote it to when he passed.

    I could really go on and on here, but please-just spend a few bucks. The money isn’t important to me, but I know what has happened would make my dad so sad.

    You also may be able to get a discount on attorney’s services depending on your job. When I was a teacher, we got once a year legal services as part of our benefit’s package.

  20. Courtney says

    We’ve lived in 3 states and have had a new will written in each state. It gives us peace of mind because we have 4 minor children to consider.

  21. M.L. says

    Thanks for the reminder to do this – FINALLY called an attorney today to make a will – $150 well spent!