12 Questions to Answer Before Using Online Estate Planning Programs
Most of us want to avoid or minimize legal fees, even those of us who are lawyers. You can do this for your estate planning by using an online service, such as LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer, or hiring an attorney to create the simplest of plans. You might even choose to do no estate planning— relying on the “rules of intestacy,” the state laws that govern who will get your assets if you don’t have a will or trust. State guardianship and conservatorship laws can also handle situations when you are incapacitated and don’t have a durable power of attorney or health care proxy, but relying on state laws is likely to cost you and your family more in legal fees down the road.
For this reason, while I feel strongly that everyone should prepare an estate plan, I’m not adamant that everyone needs to use a lawyer. If your situation is relatively simple and straightforward, an online solution may be fine. It will almost certainly be better for you and your family than no plan at all.
So, when can you use a plain vanilla plan to keep things simple? The answer is that you can do so if you answer “no” to all of the following 12 questions:
- Are you in a relationship or second (or subsequent) marriage where you or your partner have children from a prior relationship?
- Are either you or your spouse not US citizens?
- Do you own a vacation house?
- Do you have a taxable estate (over $11.58 million federally, but as low as $1 million in some states)?
- Are you unmarried? You still may be able to use an on-line program if you are single or childless (see the next question) but often things get more complicated if you want to divide your estate in many directions, perhaps depending on several contingencies.
- Are you childless?
- Are you concerned about protecting your assets in the event that you have a chronic illness or dementia?
- Do you have a child or grandchild with special needs?
- Do you own property in more than one state or in another country?
- Do you own a business, including rental property?
- Do you want to create a charitable foundation or other charitable entity?
- Do you want to protect your property from lawsuits, either for yourself or your children?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (with the possible exception of questions 5 and 6), I strongly recommend that you consult with an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney. But if you answered “no” to all of them, you can probably safely use an online or simple estate plan.