Wall Street Journal Article Fails the Test

In the Wall Street Journal’s issue on November 12, 2009, Journal writer Jane Hodges offers a “Cranky Consumer” article in which she compares and contrasts various online programs to create a do-it-yourself Will. The article, entitled “Before It’s Too Late: A Test of Online Wills,” provides a review of how easy each program is to use, and it offers information on costs, services, and technical support for each of the programs reviewed. However, Ms. Hodges seems to fail her own “test.”

The laws related to Wills and trusts vary by state. What may constitute a valid Will in Texas may not be a valid Will in California. Likewise, because of the extreme differences in the probate laws across the various states, the most effective method of planning for your estate in some states may be the creation of a revocable living trust, while in other states the most effective method of handling your estate may involve a traditional Will. Likewise, depending on the overall assets owned by an individual or married couple, including certain tax provisions in a Will or Trust might be useful in saving significant amounts of taxes when one or the other of them dies.

Ms. Hodges article fails to provide a single warning or caution about any of the programs that she reviewed. She does not address whether or not the programs create documents that adhere to the specific laws of the state in which you live (most do not). While she does make passing mention of the fact that only one of the programs even mentioned future taxes, she does not attempt to caution her readers of the fact that this issue along could be significant. Likewise, while she seems to presume that a Revocable Trust is the appropriate method for planning for an estate, she does not point out that this may not be the best advice for each consumer. Most disturbingly, Ms. Hodges makes a cavalier reference to seeking the advice of an attorney, and she seems to suggest that an attorney’s advice is not necessary. However, she does tout the fact that one of the programs allows you to call into their hotline and ask questions.

In reality, do-it-yourself Wills are very often poorly drafted, and they frequently fail to properly conform to the laws of the specific state in which you live. As a result, it can be significantly more expensive to probate the Will at your death, or the Will may be completely invalid because it was not prepared properly. Additionally, the thought that you can call a hotline to have an attorney in California answer “general” questions regarding your Will is preposterous, unless you live in California. You should not accept legal advice from an attorney who is not properly licensed in the state in which you live. In fact, it violates the ethics rules of every state in the country for an attorney to express a legal opinion about laws in a state in which he is not licensed.

While Ms. Hodges’ article may have some value, she should have done a much better job to caution her readers as to the very significant pitfalls that can befall them by using an online Will program rather than seeking the advice of a competent lawyer.