Given the recent media attention focused on DIY estate planning, a person might ask himself: “Should I do my own Will?”
In some limited circumstances, it may be appropriate to do so. For example, if a person has modest assets in his name alone, and desires to leave them to his closest surviving relative, it may be appropriate and cost-effective to use an online service. But for individuals with even slightly more complicated circumstances, creating a Will online creates risk — risk in an area that will have lasting consequences.
Historically, what we now casually describe as a “Will” carried the more somber label “Last Will and Testament.” That label accurately conveys the importance that should be afforded such instruments — a Will is one of the few human acts that survives death. It carries a legacy that can have lasting financial and emotional consequences on those who matter most — our loved ones. Mistakes made in the drafting of such an important document can profoundly alter familial relationships, leaving our family members at best confused or disappointed and at worst locked in hostile litigation.
Consider one example. A New Jersey resident opted to purchase — surely at a nominal cost — a Will form kit. He carefully handwrote his intended dispositions into the form document. He did not have it properly witnessed. Undoubtedly believing he had completed his “simple Will” properly, he signed it and then apparently committed suicide. His heirs, however, eventually paid for his efforts. In the ensuing lawsuit (Matter of Will of Feree), a New Jersey trial court struggled to find a way to interpret and give effect to his handwritten additions to the form. Under New Jersey probate law, the language on the pre-printed form was not admissible because the Will was not properly signed by Mr. Feree (Florida and New York require a Will to be signed in the presence of two witnesses and notary public). The Court’s effort to salvage Mr. Feree’s work — and the ensuing trip to the New Jersey appellate court — almost certainly cost the family tens of thousands of dollars or more. At least Mr. Feree never saw that enormous expenditure — he passed away believing he had saved money.