Are Estate Planning Online Documents "Good Enough"?

We get asked all the time by people about whether or not an estate planning online document would be “good enough.” The bottom line with the do-it-yourself options and the online options is that they are not state specific.

Each and every state in the country has their own nuances and their own unique rules, and many of the generic form databases and/or online functions do not meet the nuances of each state. I have actually seen, in several cases, where they advertise that they do, and even the paperwork that the client receives says that it does, but in reality, it simply does not. 

The other major issue that I have with online estate planning tools is that it is “junk in” and “junk out.” What I mean by that is they are going to ask you questions that you have to answer that will determine how the document will be drafted. If you do not know the answer or know the implications of the answer that you are giving, there is no way that you can know whether that document will work at the time that you need it to. 

I also worry about the unknown and about implications and situations that are currently not a concern but become so in the future. Most of the online or do-it-yourself forms are very short, very simplistic, and very basic.

The problem with that is what happens if a beneficiary is receiving public benefits at the time of your death? What happens if an individual receives money outright and is in a horrific car accident and kills 10 people? There are so many variables that change estate planning that are just not accounted for in the do-it-yourself or online programs.

One rebuttal that I often hear is that they do not have enough money to worry about those situations or those minor exceptions. I certainly appreciate that and respect that, but I think in some cases, that is a very easy cop out and is a very short sighted answer. It does not take a lot of money to have an unforeseen incident occur to lose it and to be extremely hurt and disappointed over the consequence of that action.

For example, a client recently went the online program route and had planning done, but unfortunately had a stroke and needed to go into a nursing home. The person lost all of their assets because the planning was not done correctly, and the family is very regretful that they made that decision. 

The gentleman made a very conscious decision, that he saved a couple hundred dollars and did his documents online because he did not feel that he had enough to warrant our services and our expertise. To the individual, a couple hundred thousand dollars was not a lot of money and he could not justify the expense of using our firm versus the cost of the online program. Unfortunately, the gentleman lost several hundred thousand dollars to the nursing home simply because he used an online form that did not provide for the advanced planning that would be needed. This is a very common occurrence, where people can’t seem to justify the investment and having planning done appropriately, because in their eyes the amount of money that they have doesn’t justify the excess expense.

This is a very glaring example of how he did save a couple hundred dollars, but in return he lost a couple hundred thousand dollars of his hard earned money, that could have gone to his family. The children and I have had several conversations about it and one of them even was encouraging him to hire our firm to get the work done properly. The son just could not understand why dad went with the cheap option online after he was warned, numerous times, by me and others.

It is very sad these days that online companies and attorneys who do not specialize in an area are able to market that they are a one stop shop and do everything. When in reality, they don’t and their documents don’t provide for the same things.  Beware of saving a couple dollars or a couple hundred dollars when the risks to you and your family are much greater than that. Go to a specialist who understands estate planning, elder law and asset protection and can give good advice and can provide personal assistance and not just a form document that gets spit out of a computer. 

If you would like to learn more about this, please contact our office at 717-845-5390.


jeffrey bellomo

Jeffrey R. Bellomo, Esquire is a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation under authorization of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As the owner of Bellomo & Associates, LLC he advises families about the legal challenges facing them today. He counsels clients and provides solutions on: Asset Protection, Special Needs Trusts, Wills, Trust Design, Guardianships, Medicaid and Estate Planning & Administration. His mission is to provide professional caring service to all his clients.

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