How much should you be paying for a Will? Why should you pay anything when just a few clicks away, you can find a free Last Will and Testament service? How can the exact same document cost $800 from an attorney, and absolutely nothing from a website? how do you choose how much to pay for your Will?
All interesting questions which we will answer in this article.
What is a Will?
To understand the variation in the cost of a Will, you have to understand what makes a document a Last Will and Testament.
A Will declares itself to be your Will. It typically appoints an Executor who is responsible for following the instructions laid out in the document. It then goes on to describe how you would like to distribute your things after you are gone.
To make this a legal document you must print it on a piece of paper, date it, and sign it in the presence of two witnesses, who both in turn sign the document.
There are a couple of unusual exceptions to these requirements. Some States recognize “holographic” Wills. Those that you write entirely in your own handwriting. The unique characteristic of these Wills is that they do not require witnessing. The laws makes room for these because under extreme circumstances it may not be convenient to go through the formal Will signing process.
In Canada, there is a famous case of a farmer who was pinned under his tractor. He scratched his Will on the fender leaving everything to his wife. This scratched Will was deemed to have fulfilled the requirements of a legal Will and was accepted by the probate courts. No witnesses were required.
The other unusual exception is a nuncupative Will, which is spoken. This is almost exclusively reserved for active military personnel who are facing imminent death. So for the purposes of this article, we will focus on more conventional approaches to Will writing.
Bad Wills and Good Wills
Now you know the bare minimum requirements for a Will, it’s important to understand that some Wills can be well written and some can be poorly written.
Blank form Will kits gained a reputation in the 1990’s for creating a number of very poorly worded Wills. Primarily because they required too much of the user. In general there were too many blank spaces which provided flexibility in the Will, but actually made it extremely difficult to write a well drafted Last Will and Testament.
This is a page from a real blank form Will kit. It requires the user to hand write Executor powers. Most people wouldn’t know where to start and even an experienced estate planning attorney would struggle to accurately describe Executor powers.
Blank form Will kits also notoriously failed to handle “what if” scenarios. You may feel comfortable describing your entire estate passing to your spouse, but what if you were both involved in an accident at the same time. Many blank form Will kits become useless because of the lack of an alternate plan.
High quality Wills always have alternate plans. There is never a circumstance that can arise that leaves the estate without direction. Even if a natural disaster swept through a town, a Will should still work. If the first choice beneficiaries and alternate beneficiaries are all lost to a common disaster, there should be a second alternate plan. The Will writing service at USLegalWills.com has this.
A well drafted Will incorporates established legal precedents for Executor powers. For example, the power to invest assets, buy or sell property, hire professional assistance and more. These clauses are important, but very difficult for a layperson to write into a blank form Will kit.
Why does a Will cost $800 with an estate planning attorney?
It depends on your perspective. Estate planning attorneys will tell you that you are paying for their years of training, and to some extent there is some merit in this argument. If you need custom clauses written, and have an unusual estate profile that you need to address in your Will, then the years of legal training would be useful.
Supposing for example that you would like to give everything to your children, but from a trust fund, that paid out a certain percentage each year for the rest of their lives. But if something were to happen to them, then the balance was used to establish a scholarship fund at your local school in their name. You can write this into a Will, but it would take some “figuring out” and an attorney would need to craft appropriate legal clauses.
If you have a child with special needs who is receiving government payments which take into account financial means. You do not want an inheritance to negatively impact those payments, so you need to include a trust to insure that their inheritance does not disqualify them from benefit payments.
For these situations, you need an estate planning attorney, and you need to draw upon legal experience.
But for many of us our needs are straightforward. For example, you need a Will that leaves everything to your spouse, and if something were to happen to both of you in a common accident, then everything would be divided between your children. You need to name guardians for your children and set up minor trusts. You may also wish to make charitable bequests, or leave family heirlooms to certain individuals.
You can do all of this with online interactive services like the one at USLegalWills.com.
How can services offer a free Last Will and Testament?
There are three ways to offer a free Last Will and Testament.
1. The service is no good
Anybody can create a Word document based on a blank template and offer this up as a free Last Will and Testament template. Immediately, there are issues with this approach as they do not take into account State laws. In addition they do not update the documents to reflect new legislation that may impact the content.
Furthermore, you can easily include something in your Will that is ambiguous or end up with a Will that makes no sense. Sadly, this happened in a well documented case when a senior, Ms Aldrich, attempted to list all of her possessions in her Will, and had no residual clause. Particularly for her backup plan. Even though everybody knew what she really meant, the courts dismissed her Will.
Sadly, these blank form legal Will “kits” have tarnished the reputation of all do-it-yourself approaches to writing your Will. In reality, there is a huge difference between a blank form Will kit and an online interactive service.
2. The service isn’t actually free
This is an approach taken by two of our main competitors. They advertise their Will service as free, but ask you to enter your credit card details. If you cancel within 7 days, you pay nothing, but if you don’t cancel, you will pay a monthly fee.
Many people think “no problem, I’ll make sure I cancel”. But it turns out that this is intentionally designed to be a difficult process. You often wait on hold of an hour, and even then, when you cancel the service, the charge appears on the next monthly bill only for you to have to repeat the process the following month. This free service ends up costing you hours of your time. If you don’t notice the charges, it could end up costing you hundreds of dollars.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some online reviews for our competitors
There are hundreds of these reviews.
3. The service makes money in different ways
The final approach to offering a free Last Will and Testament is to make money in other ways. There are two strategies growing in popularity.
The first is to name the service provider as the Executor of the estate. This is a strategy borrowed from traditional estate planning attorneys. Traditional Will writers sometimes offer Will writing as a loss-leader knowing that the rewards for Executor services are significantly more lucrative. Most Executors are compensated as a percentage of the estate. This means that if you were passing your entire estate to your spouse, and it was worth $250,000, the Executor will be paid about $10,000 for a day’s work.
The second emerging strategy for free last Will and testament services is to sell data to complementary companies. There are now free Last Will and Testament services who collect your personal information and then sell it to insurance companies and funeral pre-planners. They do not always restrict themselves to just your contact information, but also pass on details from within the Will.
Of course, at USLegalWills.com we don’t do any of these things.
Why do we charge $39.95 for our Will service?
We set our prices based on our costs and the value that we offer. Our service was developed in consultation with top estate planning attorneys. We have to pay for their time so you don’t have to. Our services are not only State specific, but we update the services frequently to reflect changes in the law. Recently, Florida changed its law regarding the financial Power of Attorney. We had to update our service to reflect this. Most free Last Will and Testament services probably have not incorporated these changes.
We also continue to innovate. My have developed the Executor tool MyLifeLocker service that works with our Keyholder mechanism to insure that the right information gets to the right people at the right time.
Most recently we introduced our MyVault service for uploading digital files. This allows you to upload important files. These can then be in the hands of your beneficiaries at the appropriate time.
Finally, we offer you support every step of the way. We have a support team based in North America who can answer any questions you have by phone or email.
We cannot offer a free Last Will and Testament service unless we take advantage of one of the strategies above; either pretend it’s free and then charge you, or to sell your data. We don’t want to do either of these things.
How do you decide how much you should pay for your Will?
The service at USLegalWills.com uses the same software used by lawyers across the country. We just give you direct access to it. The end result is a Will that is word-for-word identical to a Will prepared by an estate planning attorney.
You may need to pay for expensive legal advice if you have a particularly odd situation. But if you have a good idea of how you want to distribute your estate, then you are probably not getting good value for money from an estate planning attorney.
At the other end of the spectrum, a free Last Will and Testament service is not going to provide you with a Will of sufficient quality. Or there will be a dishonest element to the service.
Our feeling is that an online Will service offers you the best quality at an affordable rate. In addition this approach offers the convenience of being able to create your Will at home, and make updates whenever you need to.
Tim Hewson is one of the founders of USLegalWills.com.
He has over 20 years of experience helping people to write their Will and other estate planning documents. He has been interviewed by many of the major news media outlets, and has contributed to articles in The New York Times, NY Metro Parents, U.S. News & World Report, and other leading publications. He has also contributed to a number of financial planning books.
Throughout his career, Tim has written extensively on the subject of Will writing and estate planning.
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