Is a free (or cheap) do-it-yourself will kit safe?

Should you have a lawyer prepare your will, or is a do-it-yourself will kit adequate? This is one of the most common questions I get from clients.

I get it; everyone likes a good deal. A lawyer will charge hundreds of dollars for a will, power of attorney and living will.

I found prices on online will kits ranging from $20-$50. You can even find free will kits! These kits can be tempting – until you know the risks.

I advise my clients to deal with a lawyer instead of using one of the many kits that are available. In my opinion, the small savings aren’t worth it. Make a mistake and your will could be invalid or there could be delays, court battles, higher costs to settle an estate or assets that don’t go where you intend.

Related Article: Should You Write Your Own Will?

What to look out for with will kits

There is a reason that cheap or free DIY kits have those blatant disclaimers saying that they’re not responsible for any errors or omissions. Problems can happen – and often do. Lawyers have insurance against errors, which are far less likely anyway.

Estate-planning author Sandra Foster agrees. “I always recommend a formal will drawn up by a lawyer to Image used for article on free will kitsensure that the wording and the provisions in the will are complete and valid,” she writes in her book You Can’t Take it With You. “It is an unfortunate fact of life that our laws are getting more and more complicated.”

Foster's excellent book covers much more than wills and is one of the best estate-planning guides available for Canadians.

I’m aware of a multi-millionaire businessman near Edmonton who, tragically, was killed in a car crash along with his wife and their adult daughter. The man’s will left everything to his wife and subsequently to their daughter – their only child. However, the daughter was going through a divorce that had not yet been finalized. Long story short, the family’s wealth went to the son-in-law – a drug addict. The business went under and the reprobate squandered the fortune.

Yes, that’s an extreme example. However, lots of other things can go wrong and even something like the number and status of the witnesses can invalidate a will.

There are many cases where even providers of cheap or free will kits advise against using DIY wills. Here are some of the cases where a will kit should not be used:

  1. You’re going to get married.
  2. You have a common-law spouse.
  3. You’re separated from your partner.
  4. You need advice, including requiring help choosing executors or trustees for minor children.
  5. You own or will inherit assets outside of Canada.
  6. You have minor children or dependents with special needs.
  7. You own a recreational home, rental property or business.
  8. You need dual wills to save probate tax.
  9. You want to forgive debts to children or disinherit children.
  10. If your children are unable to handle a large inheritance.

That seems to include pretty much anyone.

Related Article: Popular Estate Planning Questions

Wrapping up

Will kits are usually written as one-size-fits-all solutions. However, everyone’s needs are unique. Your will may be invalid if it has vague wording, is badly drafted or contains ambiguous of conflicting provisions. A lawyer will be able to explain the consequences of your decisions, something you won’t get from a kit.

Given that 56 percent of adult Canadians don’t have any will, a DIY will is probably better than none if your needs are simple (leaving your assets to your spouse and then to your children if you and your spouse die together or if you have no spouse). However, if something goes wrong a DIY will may be no better than dying without a will.

Written by Wayne Rothe

Wayne Rothe, Certified Financial Planner/Branch Manager, Wayne Rothe & Associates Wealth Management, Manulife Securities Investment Services Inc., [email protected], 780-962-1146, Spruce Grove, Alberta. These comments are the author’s and not necessarily those of Manulife Securities. Commissions, trailing commissions, management fees and expenses all may be associated with mutual fund investments. Please read the prospectus before investing. Mutual funds are not guaranteed, their values change frequently and past performance may not be repeated.

12 Responses to Is a free (or cheap) do-it-yourself will kit safe?

  1. Excellent advice. If anyone has a doubt, ask yourself this question: do you know what goes into the estate and does not? Do you understand this question? If you don’t, do not even attempt to make a will on your own AND make sure your lawyer reviews with you your assets and discusses with you your financial circumstances – including answering this question.

  2. Great Question, I think people just want to get value out of the money they spend.

    Given the correct information and risks, I believe most people will go to a lawyer to complete their will.

  3. While I don’t meet any of those 10 situations listed for NOT using a DIY kit, my plan was to use one in advance of going to a lawyer, as I would have to figure out most of those same things anyway.

    What about using the DIY kit, then taking that to a lawyer to look over, or else use as a basis for a “real” will?

    • Zsabor, most lawyers will not review will kits. A good estate planning lawyer has their own templates and a binder of book full of optional clauses, it takes more time to review the kit than it does to create a will. If anything is missed in the kit, we are liable. I know several of my Wills have been challenged in court – all have been upheld. I cannot say the same for will kits. Then there is the issue of holograph wills accepted in some jurisdictions. My comments on these: i. Some were probated because the Testator/trix did not look at outside issues, so the family spent 1000s on probate when they should not have had to; and, ii. 50% have been rejected by the Probate (Surrogate Court) for various reasons. Wills for most law firms are a loss leader, we make our real money on the litigation and the probates, not on the drafting of the Wills themselves.

  4. As an Estate & Probate Lawyer, I can, with experience, say that very few will kits are filled out properly. We have a saying in Estate Planning. “Where there is a Will, there is a relative”; our fees are $400.00 for a simply Husband and Wife Will. Very few people need a complicated will. We also discourage trying to “rule from the grave”. For fun, I have run through several will kits. The practical problem is that very few people have a one-fits-all type situation. An experienced estate planning lawyer will contemplate situations you have never thought about and offer all sort of options. For every $1.00 we make off a will, we make $1000 off estate litigation. A funnier aspect of our job is to explore proper all options of avoid leaving an estate behind; for example, if we set up so there is no estate; for a few hundred dollars we set it up so there is no need to probate, saving the family $1000s and $1000s of dollars later on while making a few hundred dollars up-front. My two cents. -Richard Verhaeghe, Lawyer

  5. Great post and one that needs to be written and read 🙂

    My husband and I got our wills (the whole kit and caboodle) done by a lawyer this year. We’d been putting it off due to the price. However, after speaking to my uncle (who is a lawyer that does wills, he did not do ours), I realized that one small mistake would definitely end up costing us more than the $750 lawyer fee (taxes included, I didn’t really shop around either). And that’s only ONE mistake. Based on what I’ve read, we would likely make more than one mistake and depending on what it was, it could cost us tens of thousands of dollars, no exaggeration! Fortunately, not something that I need to worry about anymore.

    Besos Sarah.

  6. I looked at kits (I’m frugal – not cheap☺) and found that the one-time fees were worth the expertise. Hopefully I asked the right questions and understood the answers. As well, I hope the lawyer told me all I needed know.

    Is it perfect? Eventually my heirs will find out.

    • Make sure your lawyer reviews your financial circumstances AND discusses with you what goes into the estate and does not. This is crucial.

  7. Great advice, I also thought that spending more money for worth is better, than saving money but lose more. It is always saying that “Leave it to the expert”

  8. I think the will kits are probably OK for 80% of folks. As you mentioned, if there are more complicated scenarios, it is always smart to get a lawyer involved so that things can be squared away properly!

    • The problem is every case has some complications and UNLESS you know what you are doing – most people don’t – you may think it is safe to do a will without a lawyer. It baffles me to think why anyone would want to make such an important document without legal advice. Having said that, I repeat that the lawyer MUST review your financial circumstances and discuss what goes into the estate and does not. I do believe that NOT all lawyers do that.

  9. I do a lot of wills in my practice. You may think that you only need a DIY kit, but trust me – you need to speak to a lawyer. There are SO many misconceptions about how wills work, what goes into an estate, who gets what, who can contest your will (especially in BC where I am), etc. Most clients haven’t considered half of the issues I bring up during our consultation. You’ll also get educated on corollary documents such as powers of attorney, which can’t be done through a kit.

    A will is one of the most important documents you’ll ever make in your life. It’s worth the modest one-time fee.

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