Tennessee law permits you to write your own will. Some people choose to handwrite theirs. Online services are another popular way to create a Will and other important documents inexpensively. As long as the Will meets the legal requirements, it is likely to be admitted to probate court in Tennessee.
However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Believe me, I love a bargain too- it can be really tempting to find a low cost option for something that is expensive and, well, a little scary. Most people have never met with an attorney before and the idea is intimidating. It’s understandable.
However, a fellow probate attorney once said “online services are a probate lawyer’s best friend.” This is the prevailing thought among probate attorneys, because we see so many Wills that were not prepared by attorneys, and ultimately end up costing the family more in court costs than it would have cost to meet with an attorney and prepare the Will and other important documents.
I like to compare it to pest control. You know that if termites invade your house, it will end up costing tens of thousands of dollars to repair the structural damage they can cause. Would you prefer to pay $150 per year up front to prevent an infestation, or let them do the damage and then pay to fix it?
So let’s look at some of the issues that cause self-created Wills to have problems when we go to court. Here are some of the main pitfalls that we see with DIY wills:
1. Improperly Executed
Unless you have legal training specific to estate law, you may not be familiar with the exact requirements of the type of document you are trying to create. Tennessee law provides for several types of Wills, and each of them have different requirements for signing. Some of them will require witnesses to come to court, which you may want to avoid. Fun fact: No Tennessee law requires a Will to be notarized. Guessing you didn’t know that!
2. Improper use or misunderstanding of terms
A Will uses a lot of terms that we don’t use in everyday life. These words are used to communicate information to the Judge when the Will is probated. However, if you are writing your own Will or using a form, you may not know the effect that these words have in practice. While our attorneys try to use more commonplace language when writing Wills, we need to be able to get your point across. Words like “fiduciary,” “per stirpes,” “per capita,” “ademption,” and “executrix” are not terms we use, but as experienced estate planning and probate attorneys, we know how to use them correctly to carry out the plan you have in mind. In DIY documents, you may ignore terms that you don’t understand that seem to be boilerplate, or may not fully understand the effect that they will have when your plan is carried out.
3. Missing essential elements
I’ll never forget the day that I had to tell someone that they were unable to help their parent because the Power of Attorney that had been created online did not give them authority to do what needed to be done. I wanted to help, but my hands were tied. In another situation, someone hand wrote their Will but left out an essential part. Because we didn’t have any specific instructions from the Will, we had to go to Court multiple times for Court approval to do things that we were pretty sure they wanted. Those court hearings cost the estate more money than it would have to have an attorney help with the original Will.
4. No contingency plan
One of my least favorite things to do is talk to parents about contingency plans. Usually this means asking who would inherit from you if your children died before you did. No one wants to even think about that. But for estate planning purposes, it’s very important to always have a back up plan. We hope for the best and plan for the worst. And that means discussing uncomfortable things.
5. Plans that are not logistically sound
In a social setting one time, someone mentioned to me that they had created their Will online. They were open to sharing about the experience and mentioned that they had named their parents as their beneficiaries in their Will. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it requires some additional thinking through things. Parents are older than their children, and in most situations the children will outlive the parents. At Graceful Aging Legal Services, PLLC, we want to help you create a plan that needs to be reviewed but hopefully requires few revisions except at big transitions in your life. If you pass away without making changes, we want your planning to go the extra mile for you. Let’s say that you name your parents as beneficiaries of your Will, but no back up beneficiaries. You figure you can update it later- but never get around to it. Eventually you pass with no named beneficiaries, which defeats the purpose of making a Will. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you avoid situations like this and worse.
6. No probate-avoidance planning
Another thing people are confused about is thinking that a Will helps avoid probate. It doesn’t. The purpose of a Will is for a probate court to know what you want when you die so they can carry out your wishes. In a meeting with a good estate planning attorney, you will talk about your goals for your assets when you die and create a plan. Oftentimes we are able to guide clients how to avoid probate. One of my favorite things is when someone comes to us for probate and we are able to tell them that good planning means that they don’t need to go to court.
7. Validate of the Will is easier to challenge
Although having options to create a Will yourself may be beneficial to some, it also creates opportunity for bad actors- or the perception that people are acting with impure motives. Imagine a scenario where your neighbor asks you to draft a will off the internet for them to sign. You may be called into Court to testify about how the Will was created, your neighbors medical condition at the time the Will was created, to what extent you helped, and if you inherited anything you’ll be looked at with additional scrutiny. Having a lawyer involved not only protects the Will and the Will-maker, but also the family and friends involved. We know how to prevent claims of undue influence and ensure the Will document is valid.
When you write your own Will, you don’t know what mistakes you might make. Unfortunately, by the time the Will is submitted to probate, you won’t be around to make clarifications. The Court will have to go by what is written in the Will. Your family will be stuck with what you wrote, or risk the Court finding that your Will is invalid and throwing out all of the work you did to create it in the first place. If your family thinks that you didn’t mean what you wrote, they will have to pay additional costs to help the Court figure out what you meant. When that happens, lawyers get more of your money and your family gets less.
We prefer to work with families who get along, and are on the same page when it comes to their loved one’s estate. It makes the probate process (if there is one), easier both emotionally and financially. We don’t like to make money correcting mistakes or with families who have been left in a difficult position. If you find yourself in this situation, we’re happy to help but we’d much prefer that you not be there in the first place.
If you have an online will or were thinking about it, sign up here for our virtual estate planning challenge to think through all of the things you need before you even meet with an attorney.