And there are two main options for doing it:
- Do it yourself
- Hire an estate planning attorney
There are pros and cons to both approaches and this post breaks them down so that you can make the right decision for your specific situation.
Pros of doing it yourself
Technology has made it much easier and less risky to go the DIY route. There are certainly drawbacks, and we’ll talk about those, but there are some situations where this is absolutely the right move.
Here are the biggest pros of creating your estate planning documents yourself.
It will almost always be cheaper to create your own estate planning documents instead of working with an attorney, at least up front.
The online tools I’ve researched, which are detailed below, cost between $39 and $249 for a couple to get all the basic documents in place. If you’re on a limited budget, that can be pretty appealing.
Using an online tool from the comfort of your home could save you time and offer convenience over traveling to an estate planning attorney’s office.
If your situation is simple, you may not get much benefit from working with an attorney over using an online tool.
A simple situation typically looks like this:
- Single or traditionally married
- No divorces, step-children, or adoptions
- Few assets being passed down
- All assets are being passed down the same way
Keep in mind that even if you don’t have much money in savings, you may have a significant amount of life insurance that your family would be inheriting. If that’s the case, you may want the guidance of an attorney to ensure that money gets handled appropriately.
Pros of working with an estate planning attorney
While the DIY route offers cost savings and convenience, it comes with some downsides too.
- You may not be familiar with all the decisions you have to make and therefore may not be sure you created the plan you wanted.
- You can’t be 100% sure how the documents will hold up when put to the test in a court of law.
A good estate planning attorney can help with both of those issues. Here are some of the main benefits of working with a professional.
When my wife and I handled our estate planning documents, we worked with an attorney and paid good money to do so.
And I consider it some of the best money we’ve ever spent.
The reason is that we found a really good one who did more than simply draw up the documents.
He took the time to learn about who we were, what we valued, and what we cared about. He carefully explained every decision we were making in a clear, easy-to-understand way. And he coached us through those decisions to make sure we ended up with a plan we really believed in.
That guidance was priceless because it ensured that our children will be taken care of no matter what. And we couldn’t have gotten it from a piece of software.
Every state has different laws governing how estates are handled. And every family has different circumstances and different ideas about how they would like things done.
A good estate planning attorney is going to know those laws inside and out and will be able to apply them correctly to your specific situation, while the online tools may struggle to capture some of the nuance.
If you’re looking for certainty around your estate plan, you’re more likely to find it from working with an attorney.
3. Managing complexity
The more complicated your situation, the more likely it is that you should work with an attorney.
For example, I probably wouldn’t use an online tool to create a living trust. There are just too many moving parts there to trust a piece of software.
And if you would be leaving behind significant assets, including life insurance, that would be another reason to consider a professional. If you’ve been divorced, or have step-children, or have a domestic partnership, those would all be reasons to consider working with an attorney.
A good attorney has both the expertise to get the details right and the ability to guide you through what may be a complicated set of decisions.
As your life changes, it may be easier to update your estate plan with the help of an attorney you trust, who understands your goals, and who already knows what your current estate plan looks like.
When to do it yourself
Given all the pros and cons, I would consider creating your own estate planning documents in any of the following situations:
- Paying for an attorney would jeopardize your immediate financial security.
- Your situation is very simple with few assets, no complicated family relationships, and no big life insurance policies.
- You will be moving to a new state in the near future. In that case, it may make sense to DIY now and find an attorney once you move, since each state’s laws are different. Or you could find an attorney who is licensed in both states and can write the documents so that they’re valid in both places.
If you’d like to do it yourself, here are a few tools I’m familiar with and the cost associated with each as of the date of this post. Please keep in mind that I am not an estate planning attorney and I cannot personally vouch for how any of these tools would stand up in court.
- Estate Guidance – $19.99 per person to create a will and $19.99 per person to create a living will. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like they currently offer a durable power of attorney or health care proxy.
- LegalZoom – $149 per person for a package that includes all the essential documents other than a health care proxy. It also looks like they offer a discount for couples at $249 total.
- Nolo – $54.99 per person for a package that includes all of the basic estate planning documents.
- RocketLawyer – $39.95 per month for a package that allows you to create as many documents as you’d like and speak to a lawyer with any questions. According to the customer service representative I spoke with, you could use this for both you and a spouse and the documents would be yours to keep once you canceled the service.
When to work with an attorney
I would strongly consider working with an estate planning attorney when you can afford it without jeopardizing your immediate financial security and you can find someone you trust.
The guidance that a good attorney offers is incredibly valuable in making sure you create the plan you want. So if you can afford it I would do it.
And if your situation is more complex than just the basics, you may simply have to work with an attorney if you want to be sure that your plan will work the way you expect.
As for finding a good attorney, I would suggest locating several in your area and calling them directly. You can give them the following information and ask the following questions:
- Provide a quick background of your situation.
- Explain which documents you are looking to get in place.
- Ask what they charge for their services.
- Ask whether they typically work with clients like you.
- Ask what the process would look like if you wanted to move forward.
- Ask what kind of guidance or coaching they provide through all the decisions you would be making.
What you’re looking for is someone you feel comfortable with, you think will take the time to understand your personal situation, and will do that at a price you’re willing to pay.
As for actually finding the attorneys to talk to, here are a few resources for you:
- Employee benefits – Your employer may offer discounted legal services as part of your employee benefits. That would be a good place to start.
- WealthCounsel – A directory of estate planning attorneys that makes it easy to find people in your area.
- National Association of Estate Planners & Councils – Another useful directory of estate planning attorneys.
- Google – Search for “estate planning attorney” + “your city”.
Any plan is better than no plan
Estate planning is a tough process. It’s a morbid topic and it can take a while to get everything in place.
It’s also important. So I would encourage you to consider which route is best for your particular situation, but also which route you can actually do right now.
Because in the end, having any estate planning documents in place is better than having none, no matter how you get them done.