Risky Do-It-Yourself Documents, Part 1: Wills

LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, and Nolo are all common suppliers of Do-It-Yourself legal services these days. All of these (and many more) offer a document production system that makes writing a will, a landlord-tenant agreement, an employment contract, or other documents as easy as a small software fee. But as many a lawyer will advise his clients that might be thinking about these services, he’ll still be there to clean up the mess when it eventually appears.

This post is the first of a series that explores the risks of such documents. Today I’m going to highlight a hypothetical situation with a pair of newlyweds drafting a do-it-yourself will.

Oscar and Anne just got married last week, and spent a glorious time in the Bahamas on their honeymoon, from time to time discussing the changes they might need to make now that they are husband and wife. The next week, Oscar went down to Staples to grab a printer cartridge and browse around, and found a software package of forms to make your own will. He said to himself, “Awesome! This will save us a thousand dollars in lawyer fees.” He bought it for $30, convinced his wife about the savings, and a month later, they sat down to draft the document. The document listed “all personal and real property” of each would go to the other if one passed away, or if both pass away, to any children they might have. They printed the will and read a website that said they need two witnesses. They got two family friends to come over, everyone signed, and they placed the only copy inside their safety deposit box at the bank.

The couple lived in Oscar’s home that he had financed with his sister Laura, and Oscar now assumed that everything would pass to his spouse and any children the couple might have, just as the will said.

Five years later, Oscar and Anne had two boys, Tyler and Dylan. They decided to take a trip back to the Bahamas to relive their honeymoon, and left the boys at Oscar’s brother Jim’s house. Unfortunately, the plane crashed and both Oscar and Anne did not survive.

Now, Jim and Laura had not spoken peaceably for eight years, and they did not get along now. Immediately after the funeral, which Oscar’s brother paid out of pocket, Oscar’s sister immediately claimed the house as her own, saying that Oscar had never finished paying her back for the money she lent him on the house, and that the kids were on their own with Jim, because she never liked Anne, and therefore never liked Anne’s kids.

After calming down from the shock of that statement, Jim remembered that Oscar once said he had a will made which gave everything to the kids stored at the bank. He asked Laura for the bank key, but she refused to give it to him. So he snuck into the house one night that week, found the key to the deposit box, found the will, and brought it to his lawyer, who filed it with the court.

$9000 and 9 months later, Laura still occupied the home and was refusing to deliver the personal items within it over to the children, and the court was determining whether Jim was fit to serve as their guardian. The reasons why were multiple:

1- The home had always been held in a land trust that named Oscar and Laura as beneficiaries, with no mention of Anne or the children. When Oscar died, the real estate interest automatically transferred over to Laura, and the will had no effect on it, because the will did not list the specific property.

2 – The will did not name a guardian for the children, and because Jim had some criminal issues a few years ago (before he cleaned his life up), the court was not willing to approve him without further inquiry. It also looked like Jim was not likely to get any money back that he had spent on trying to watch over his nephews, because the estate’s executor had been appointed by the court, since the will did not name one, and only the executor had the right to get paid for his time dealing with Oscar and Anne’s estate.

3 – Laura was contesting the will’s distribution of personal property, saying the Oscar and Anne did not know what they were doing when they signed the will. The court sought to hear testimony from the two witnesses who signed the will, but one had passed away last year, and the other was last seen leaving to work in Brazil with a two-year contract, and Jim was having trouble paying his legal bill, so the issue ended there.

The end result here is that do-it-yourself documents may have saved between $250-2500 in legal fees for estate planning; it also left Laura with the home and all the items within, the two kids without a family member to take care of them or any inheritance, and Jim having spent his entire savings to try to accomplish the right thing for his brother’s kids, with nothing in return but a lawyer bill ten times the amount Oscar and Anne saved.

Of course, not every do-it-yourself will ends in this type of absolute disaster; this is probably a worst-case scenario. But the scenario above can very easily happen to a do-it-yourself customer who is not aware of the many complications the law holds, especially if they are concerned about certain family members, or if they have numerous debts, business/partnership interests, or other complications.

This is why, when you are contemplating your end-of-life property plan, it is always a good idea to contact an attorney who handles estate planning (such as myself), to ensure your family and/or your other heirs get everything you wish for them to have. Instead, leave the do-it-yourself documents for the people who want to leave their entire estate to chance.

DISCLAIMER: Please do not prepare your own forms after reading this blog, without consulting an attorney first to see if they are appropriate for your situation. I make no representations or guarantees as to the applicability of any forms mentioned here to your specific situation. This blog is ADVERTISING MATERIAL only, and should not be relied upon as legal advice, especially if you are not an Illinois resident. Please contact me if you have a legal question or concern, as no attorney-client agreement will exist between myself and any readers of this blog unless it is signed in writing.

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One comment

  1. It seems that a do-it-yourself will does not guide you through all the possible issues that can arise and what you absolutely do not want to happen in the event of your death.


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