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 ensure 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:
- You’re going to get married.
- You have a common-law spouse.
- You’re separated from your partner.
- You need advice, including requiring help choosing executors or trustees for minor children.
- You own or will inherit assets outside of Canada.
- You have minor children or dependents with special needs.
- You own a recreational home, rental property or business.
- You need dual wills to save probate tax.
- You want to forgive debts to children or disinherit children.
- If your children are unable to handle a large inheritance.
That seems to include pretty much anyone.
Related Article: Popular Estate Planning Questions
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.