The Best Elder Law Services
COVID-19 Update: With social distancing and stay-at-home orders, many seniors are struggling with loneliness and isolation. We’ve developed a list of products that caregivers or seniors can purchase to help older adults stay happy, healthy and connected, whether they are aging in place at home or in an assisted living community.
As seniors age, they face a unique set of challenges around which a branch of law called “elder law” has grown. Attorneys who specialize in elder law usually focus on the following:
- Litigating for seniors who have experienced financial loss due to scams, neglect, or abuse
- Helping seniors establish and understand Medicaid eligibility through financial planning
- Creating estate planning documents like wills, revocable living trusts, powers of attorney, and advanced directive
The third item on this list is crucial for seniors who want a say both in their end of life care and in what happens to their money and belongings when they are gone. Despite its importance, a high percentage of seniors do not have an estate plan. According to a 2019 Caring.com survey, 57% of American adults do not have estate planning documents such as a will or living trust.The percentage is slightly better for older Americans, with 34% of those 65 years old lacking key estate planning documents. The cost of legal fees and the mistaken belief that those with small assets don’t need to plan their estates keeps many seniors from getting started on estate planning.
Many websites are stepping up to help fill this gap, providing both legal documents and access to lawyers at significantly reduced prices. Most online elder law services focus on estate planning needs and small business documents, but in some cases, you may find help for other elder law issues as well. With so many online options for legal help, you don’t necessarily need to leave your home or pay thousands of dollars to create an estate plan. Many websites can help you get started making your will, living trust, power of attorney, and much more.
To help you sift through the plentiful options that you’ll find online, we’ve created a guide that explains basic estate planning terminology and reviews some of the best online legal service companies. At the end of our guide, you’ll also find a step-by-step buyers guide and answers to some of the most frequently asked estate planning questions.
Estate Planning Terminology
Estate planning and elder law include quite a bit of specialized terminology. You may have a passing familiarity with many of the terms, but in order to accurately compare companies and create documents that meet your needs, it’s important to really understand the foll
A probate court has several purposes, including:
- Declaring wills valid or invalid
- Dealing with the claims of those contesting (questioning the legality of) a will
- Appointing people to distribute assets in the absence of a valid will
- Dealing with matters related to inheritance and guardianship
- Addressing concerns of those whom the deceased was in debt to
Probate court proceedings become part of public record. Time in probate court can be costly and may last months or even years, especially if there is a missing or contested will. Having a well-written will can help the probate process go quickly, and having a living trust can often allow you to avoid probate entirely.
These are what most people think of when planning for the future. A will does the following:
- Appoints an executor
- Stipulates who will receive your wealth and possessions, including any pets
- Details how any debts you owe should be paid, including funeral expenses
- Appoints a guardian for a dependant if necessary
Wills are most suitable for those whose estates are uncomplicated and relatively small.
Will terms to know:
- Testator: The person who makes the will.
- Executor: The person who carries out the will, distributing assets, paying debts and taxes, filing papers, appearing in court, and more. This can be a heavy responsibility. The executor may hire an accountant or lawyer to help.
- Beneficiaries: Those who inherit assets as outlined in the will.
- Witness: Someone who watches you sign the will and who also signs. They may testify in court that you signed the document without coercion and in your right mind.
- Pour-over will: A will stipulating that any assets not already included in the testator’s living trust should pass to that trust following the testator’s death.
Revocable Living Trusts
A revocable living trust allows you to manage your own finances until you either pass away or are declared incompetent. After either of these events, control of the assets in the trust passes to your successor trustee without having to be processed through probate court (unless the trust is contested). A trust is usually an alternative to a will, but you still need a pour-over will to handle any assets not included in the trust at the time of your death.
In general, the purpose of a trust is to completely avoid probate court. Staying out of probate court keeps financial details private and makes it possible to distribute the inheritance to beneficiaries in a timely manner without costly court oversight. A basic revocable living trust does not reduce estate taxes, though other kinds of trusts can.
Living Trust Terms to Know
- Trustmaker: This is the person who creates the trust. This person is also usually the trustee who has full control of the assets in the trust. The trustmaker can also be called the grantor.
- Secondary or successor trustee: The person or company that carries out the terms of the trust following the death of the original trustee.
- Beneficiaries: Those who receive any assets from the trust.
You may amend or end a revocable living trust if you are still mentally competent. Assets must be transferred to a trust through renaming and retitling accounts and belongings.
Advanced directives are legal documents signed by a mentally competent person regarding his or her wishes for end of life care or for what happens if he or she can no longer communicate or make sound choices. We have listed the most common forms of advanced directives below.
This form details your wishes regarding end of life decisions for things like life support, feeding tubes, and organ donation. This form does not cover all healthcare circumstances and may or may not appoint anyone to make decisions for you, however. You can often get this form from your state government at no cost. It may simply be labeled as an advanced directive.
DNR stands for “do not resuscitate” order. If you do not want CPR to be used to resuscitate you if your heart stops, you can create this document with your doctor. No one besides you and your doctor may craft a legally binding DNR. Exactly what is covered in a DNR varies by state.
Power of Attorney
Power of attorney is one of the most important forms of an advanced directive. There are different types of power of attorney, and many people have two separate documents, one for medical and one for financial purposes. These documents appoint an agent or agents to make decisions for you. They can be durable, nondurable, or springing.
- Durable: Effective as soon as it’s signed and stays in effect even if you are incapacitated.
- Non-durable: Ends if you are incapacitated and does not serve the purpose of appointing a person to look after your affairs while you are incapacitated.
- Springing: Comes into effect only when you are incapacitated.
A durable power of attorney is usually recommended to ensure someone pays your bills or makes medical choices for you if you are unable. Springing power of attorney can work as well for this purpose, but banks or other institutions will have to officially declare you incapacitated before action can be taken on your behalf, leading to delays and potential frustration.
The financial and medical agent named in your separate power of attorney documents need not be the same person. You may find that one relative will be better able to cope with making medical decisions, while another may be more financially savvy. You can name multiple or alternate agents in each document, as well.
Medical Power of Attorney
Medical or healthcare power of attorney is a document in which you designate someone whom you trust to make difficult medical decisions on your behalf. This document can work along with a living will. A spouse can often make medical decisions even without a power of attorney, but it’s best to have this document anyway and to name an alternate person in case your spouse or main agent is also incapacitated or simply unavailable.
Financial Power of Attorney
This form of power of attorney grants the agent control of finances held in your name. Items included in a trust may not be in their control, however. The financial agent you choose can pay your bills and may even be able to make large financial decisions such as selling your property or changing account names, depending on just how much power you grant. It’s crucial you designate someone you trust to honor your wishes since financial abuse can occur via the power granted in these documents.
Some seniors designate multiple financial agents to reduce the risk of undetected financial abuse as well as to lighten the load of decision-making. You can revoke your power of attorney as long as you are still mentally capable, but in some cases, damage done by an untrustworthy agent could be irreversible.
How We Chose the Best Online Legal Services
Each company we reviewed has been operating online for at least 10 years. Focusing on well-established companies allowed us to verify through user reviews, news reports, and other sources that these companies weren’t just trying to make a quick buck without offering valuable products and customer service. A long history doesn’t guarantee good quality, of course, and we excluded some companies with long histories whose products or websites weren’t user-friendly.
Estate Planning Products
Not all legal services and document companies offer a good selection of estate planning documents. We eliminated companies from our list who only offered small business services like contracts and limited liability corporation filings. All of the companies on our list offer, at a minimum, help with wills, living trusts, and power of attorney documents.
We sought out companies that have lawyers involved in leadership and product development. To be clear, these online companies aren’t law firms and don’t give legal advice (unless they specifically state otherwise), but the fact that they have documents built or vetted by attorneys makes their products more trustworthy. Legal document sites that also connect customers to attorney networks provide an added layer of convenience and protection, usually at an added cost.
The 6 Best Elder Law Services of 2021
Overview of Online Legal Services Companies
|Prices||Notable Estate Planning Documents Available||Customer Access to an Attorney||Online Documents or Software||Ability to Change or Revoke Documents|
|Legal Zoom||-$39+ starting cost for many documents|
-30-minute legal consultations starting at $10 a month
-$10 professional printing
-The following bundles include multiple documents and access to attorney consultations for 1 year:
--$179 for a Last Will and Testament Estate Plan Bundle
--$329 Living Trust Estate Plan Bundle
-Power of attorney
-Last will & testament
-Pet protection agreement
|-Online consults available||-Online, with optional printing services||-Yes, 30-day and 1-year options for revision|
|Nolo||-$59.99 for an online will or trust with a renewable subscription|
-$89.00 for Quicken Willmaker & Trust software, which includes access to a total of over 30 documents
-Revocable living trust
-Durable power of attorney for finances
-Health care directive (living will & health care power of attorney)
-Information for caregivers and survivors
-Letter to survivors
-Revocation of health care directive
|-Referrals only||-Both||-Revision and revocation documents are available|
|Law Depot||-1-week free trial|
-$33 monthly cancel-anytime subscription
-$95.88 yearly subscription ($7.99 per month)
-$7.50-$50 for individual documents
|-Last will and testament|
-Power of attorney
-Revocable Living trust
|-No||-Online||-Revision and revocation documents are available|
|Rocket Lawyer||-1-week free trial|
-$39.99 per month with a subscription
-$39.99 per document without a subscription
-Attorney services included with a subscription
|-Last will and testament|
-Mental health declaration and power of attorney
-Do not resuscitate guide
-Power of attorney
|-Online consults and referrals available with member discounts||-Online||-Revocation documents are available|
|Enodare||-$8.00-$12.00 for most E-forms|
-About $30.00 for online documents with interview-style customization
-About $70.00 for software
|-Last will and testament|
-Multiple power of attorney documents
|-No||-Both||-Some revocation documents and kits are available|
|Legal Shield||-$24.95 basic monthly subscription, including attorney services|
-25% discount on most legal services not directly covered by membership
-Last will and testament
-Durable Power of attorney
-trust preparation at extra cost
|-Online, over the phone, and in-person as dictated by the plan||-Online||-Attorneys can assist with revocations and revisions|
|Note: Many legal help and document sites operate on a subscription basis. The industry standard practice is to automatically renew your subscription after a free trial period or after the first subscription term is up. Though most companies will send you a courtesy notice of renewal, it is still your responsibility to cancel any subscription you no longer want.|
Best Bundled Plans
Tracing its business roots to 1999 and launching its website in 2001, LegalZoom was one of the earliest and most prominent companies to provide legal services online. LegalZoom has dramatically improved consumer access to affordable legal help, growing from 100 thousand customers in 2003 to about 3.6 million customers today.
LegalZoom has a simple website and transparent pricing. Whether you’re looking at an individual document or a bundled plan that includes documents and legal consultations, you will find it easy to compare payment options without needing to get into lengthy user agreements. The estate plan bundle is an especially smart deal, offering three estate planning documents plus free document revisions and limited access to attorneys for a year.
Overview of LegalZoom Products
30-minute legal consultations starting at $10 a month
$10 professional printing
The following bundles include multiple documents and access to attorney consultations for 1 year:
$179 for a last will and testament estate plan bundle
$329 living trust estate plan bundle
Power of attorney, financial and Health
Last will & testament
Pet protection agreement
LegalZoom has great variety of quality products. It offers subscriptions and many different bundles, allowing you to make the smartest financial choice for your legal needs.
Pros and Cons of Using Legal Zoom
- 30 minute attorney consultations: Under many plans from LegalZoom, including the estate plan bundle, you can have free thirty-minute consultations with attorneys in your state to discuss legal issues related to estate planning, business formations, legal document review, personal legal matters, and family matters. Under the same program, you may also discuss taxes through LegalZoom’s partner 1-800 Accountant.
- Substantial savings for bundling: Most people find they need multiple estate planning documents to address their future wishes for their health and finances. Buying these documents in a bundle from LegalZoom can save you 37% compared to buying each item in the bundle individually. Buying as a couple can save you even more. The living trust estate plan bundle for two is only $50 more than the same bundle for one.
- The “new” legal matter rule: To keep costs low, plans that provide free 30-minute consultations restrict consultations to “new” legal matters. Even if you purchased an estate planning bundle, you may not be able to spend more than one 30-minute session discussing your use of that bundle. Calling back about the same document is certainly excluded. If you want more time on a given matter, you can pay for it at a 25% discount, however.
- Automatic renewal: Many features from LegalZoom are set up to automatically renew, charging the card you have on file. The one year of attorney advice that comes in estate plan bundles typically renews for $119.00 after the first year expires. If you don’t want it to renew, you may have to call, send an email, or otherwise actively opt out of the renewal to avoid charges.
Nolo was founded in San Francisco in 1971 when lawyers Toni Ihara and Jake Warner began to self-publish legal how-to books. Nolo’s initial goal was to serve low-income residents who didn’t qualify for the pro bono legal aid that the founders provided but who still needed legal help. Since then, Nolo has never stopped finding innovative ways to empower its customers who need low-cost legal assistance.
In 2020, many public libraries began stocking Nolo self-help books. Even more notable than its books is Nolo’s do-it-yourself legal software, Willmaker & Trust, which the company has been publishing in different forms since 1980. Nolo partners with Quicken, a financial software brand many consumers already know, to make this software. The 2020 version of Willmaker & Trust is available online. With Nolo’s legal software, you can rest assured that you’re getting a high-quality program that takes into account the latest laws and offers much more than just estate planning.
Overview of Nolo Products
$89.00 for Quicken Willmaker & Trust software, which includes access to a total of over 30 documents
Revocable living trust
Durable power of attorney for finances
Health care directive (Living will & Healthcare power of attorney)
Information for caregivers and survivors
Letter to survivors
Revocation of health care directive
To understand some of the most significant positives and negatives of Nolo’s products, read our pros and cons lists below.
Pros and Cons of Using Nolo Products
- Frequent updates: Nolo attorneys review the Willmaker & Trust software yearly to improve it and keep it relevant. The company posts details about what it has changed each year.
- Multi-person use: Many Nolo products can benefit multiple family members. Both software and online documents can be used by you and your spouse, cutting your costs in half.
- Helpful software FAQs: Understanding the limits of legal document software can be confusing on many websites. Nolo strives to make the limits of its software clear. By browsing the Frequently Asked Questions on Nolo’s website, you’ll encounter product details that you may not have even thought to ask. These FAQs are a great tool that will help you decide if the software is right for you.
- Comparison tool: With books that include legal forms, online forms that come with subscriptions, a software package, and referrals to local lawyers all available on Nolo, you may be wondering which option is the best for you. Nolo’s product descriptions usually include links to a comparison tool that will show you similar Nolo products in a helpful chart.
- State limitations: Nolo warns that Willmaker & Trust documents are not all valid in Louisiana, United States Territories or in Canada. Many individually sold documents in Nolo’s store are made for just one state.
- Limited attorney access: Nolo has no plans that include lawyer consults, but it does provide a database of lawyers searchable by location and area of law. Unfortunately, Nolo does not offer discounts or deals on consultations, unlike many of its competitors.
Best Annual Pricing Value
LawDepot has offered a wide range of customizable legal documents and contract forms since 2001. The company estimates that it has saved its over 10 million users more than 2 billion dollars in legal fees, or about $200 in savings per customer. This brand prides itself on its extensive legal library and offers a wide variety of business documents and contracts as well as the estate planning items that most seniors want.
Although LawDepot’s month-to-month subscription is very similar to its competitors’ prices, its yearly subscription cost is significantly lower. With LawDepot you can get a year of access to hundreds of documents for less than $100. Documents from LawDepot are tailored to states and filled out using a simple interview format that includes explanations of terminology. For the consumer who wants easy-to-use, one-year access to a full library of legal documents, Law Depot offers great value.
Overview of LawDepot Products
1-week free trial
$33 monthly cancel-anytime subscription
$95.88 yearly subscription ($7.99 per month)
Power of attorney
Revocable Living trust
Pros and Cons of Using LawDepot
- Flexible payment options: When using legal documents from LawDepot, you have flexibility in your payment options. As you go to print your document, you will see the following three “license” options:
- One-year access: Pay a flat fee ($30, for example) for one-year access to a single document. This option gives you the freedom to take your time or make a new copy.
- Trial Subscription: This option costs $33 a month, but if you cancel it in the first week during the free trial, you pay nothing even though you can fully access and print unlimited documents. You may also choose to let your subscription continue at $33 a month, use more document forms, and cancel whenever is convenient for you.
- One-Year Pro: This is a one-year prepaid subscription for $95.88 (which equals just $7.99 a month, though you must pay all at once) with access to revisions and hundreds of other legal documents. This is your most economical option if you want more than two months of document access.
- Responsive customer service: On review sites such as the Better Business Bureau and Trust Pilot, customers who accidentally let their subscriptions continue often receive courteous responses and refunds from LawDepot. This brand demonstrates over and over again that it is committed to maintaining good relationships with its customers by quickly addressing their concerns.
- No access to an attorney: If you are looking for a membership that will allow you to message, call, or meet an attorney, LawDepot cannot provide that service. This brand strictly offers documents.
- Confusing website: LawDepot labels all of its documents as “Free.” All documents can be free, but only if you select the right option. As the website is currently designed, you won’t be able to see pricing until you click the “Print/Download” step and are prompted to “Select a License.” It’s only after you click that button that you will see the three pricing options discussed above, one of which includes the free trial.
Most Informative Website
Rocket Lawyer’s founder Charley Moore started Rocket Lawyer with the idea that our society cannot be truly just unless low-income people have better access to the law. Rocket Lawyer officially began in 2008 in the United States, and subsequently expanded to the United Kingdom in 2012. This company is perhaps most famous for providing low-cost contracts and partnering with technology innovators to provide the best online contract security possible.
Rocket Lawyer has one of the best websites that we have seen for legal document companies. Rocket Lawyer not only makes its pricing system crystal clear, but it also provides extremely helpful information on each document it sells, answering common questions in detail. If you’re concerned about getting all the details of your estate plan right, Rocket Lawyer’s combination of informative material and access to lawyers at steep discounts could be just the service that you need.
Overview of Rocket Lawyer Products
$39.99 per month with a subscription
$39.99 per document without a subscription
Attorney services included with a subscription
Mental Health declaration and Power of attorney
Do not resuscitate guide
Power of attorney
Pros and Cons of Using Rocket Lawyer
- Great free trial: You can test Rocket Lawyer’s documents out and print or save them for seven days without paying anything. As long as you cancel promptly on the seventh day, you won’t be charged anything- and Rocket Lawyer makes cancellations painless.
- Free legal questions and consultations: Rocket Lawyer membership comes with a free online form to ask a lawyer a quick question in writing. This “Q&A” form sends your questions directly to on-call lawyers who contract with Rocket Lawyer (Rocket Lawyer itself is not a law firm). With a membership you can also have 30 minute consultations with lawyers about “new” legal matters, which usually means matters you have not already discussed with a contracted lawyer.
- Deep discounts: For more in-depth questions you may have for an attorney, or if you want to discuss a matter that no longer qualifies as “new,” you can browse Rocket Lawyers list of attorney profiles and select a lawyer that you like from your state. Rocket Lawyers secures what it calls “deep discounts” for you from these lawyers, and you may be able to get advice at a 40% discount in some cases.
- Limited eligibility for legal consults: The 30-minute consultations that come free with your membership are limited to “new” legal matters. In practical terms, this often means that you won’t be allowed to discuss the same document in two different sessions with your lawyer, unless, of course, you’re willing to pay extra.
- Mid-range pricing: Rocket Lawyer offers an affordable monthly service that many people enjoy, but it isn’t the cheapest on our list. A monthly subscription currently costs $39.99 a month, or about $480 per year.
Best for Self-Guided Estate Planning
Enodare’s services have been enriching the legal document and information market since 2000. Enodare serves an incredibly wide market, offering online legal documents suitable for 30 different countries and publishing books in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
Enodare most benefits those interested in doing things entirely for themselves. If you have a very small or simple estate and you plan to not consult an attorney at all, this company may be a great fit for you. Enodare doesn’t connect consumers to attorneys through subscriptions or referrals. Instead, this brand focuses on publishing software, online documents, and popular legal books and kits at very reasonable prices, fueling self-guided learning for savvy consumers and their families.
Overview of Enodare Products
About $30.00 for online documents with interview-style customization
About $70.00 for software
A large variety of legal books and kits offered for under $30.00
Multiple Power of attorney documents
Pros and Cons of Using Enodare
- Helpful bookstore: Enodare’s legal and financial books in paperback and ebook versions are offered at reasonable prices, all currently costing less than $30.00. Enodare offers eight books in the category of estate planning alone, as well as multiple estate planning kits. Each item is a little different, but most include forms that you can use for legal documents if your estate is sufficiently simple. Even if you can’t use included forms, some of these books can help you understand the important issues you’re dealing with when you plan your estate.
- Online document creation: If you’re looking for more customization than a document in a kit or book can provide, Enodare’s online documents can meet your needs. Offerings include wills, living wills, living trusts, and power of attorney. You can answer easy interview-style questions to fill the form out quickly.
- Older software: Enodare’s Will Writer Estate Planning Software is one of the most prominent products on Endodare’s website, but it doesn’t work with Windows 10. This software is only compatible with Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows 8. The website does say that the software can be updated to accommodate changing laws, but the fact is that many people no longer have computers that use old operating systems. Many people may be better off using the online documents that are available.
Best for Attorney Access
Since the early 1970s, Legal Shield has been on a mission to make legal services affordable to the average American. The company’s prepaid legal services have evolved with changing times and are now accessible online as well as over the phone and in person as they were originally offered. Legal Shield does not offer form documents; rather, it offers a membership for a professional connection to an attorney who will craft documents for you.
With a network of prepaid lawyers from 39 law firms, Legal Shield takes the guesswork out of finding the right representation and offers the most extensive access to attorneys on our list. You can receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of advice, document creation or review, help with speeding tickets, and even trial representation in some cases through your membership.
Overview of Legal Shield Products
*Note: Certain styles of a Last Will and Testament may incur an extra charge or otherwise not be fully covered by the plan. You can speak with an associate or read the user agreement for more details before purchasing.
25% discount on legal services not directly covered by membership
These may include:
Living Will/physicians directive
Last will & testament*
Durable power of attorney
Trust preparation (possibly at additional cost)
Legal Shield offers the most comprehensive online legal services on our list through its LegalShield Legal Plan that starts at $24.95 a month. At this reasonable price, an attorney will help you create fully customized estate planning documents. You will not need to use templates. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of using Legal Shield.
Pros and Cons of Using Legal Shield
- Some family members included: Without paying any extra fees, your spouse and dependent children can also be covered for many of the features of your plan. Minor children, disabled children of any age, and children who are under age 26 and either living with you or in college are usually included. Rules may vary by state.
- A wide range of services: In addition to estate planning documents like wills, power of attorney, and more, most Legal Shield plans offer a range of other benefits such as speeding ticket assistance, civil lawsuit representation, IRS audit services, contract and document review for any documents under 15 pages, and phone calls with attorneys as you need them.
- 24/7 emergency legal help: If you are arrested, served a warrant, or injured, you can get immediate, around-the-clock access to an attorney who will help you deal with your emergency.
- No single or DIY document purchases: If you just want one or two documents, a plan from Legal Shield is probably far more comprehensive than you need. You can’t buy a document a-la-carte here, and there are no free trials.
- Complex plans: Legal Shield’s plans tend to be complex, with fine print and detailed information on exclusions. You will need to read the terms very carefully to ensure the service you want is fully covered.
- Written cancellation required: Legal Shield’s cancellation process is more formal than most. You must mail or email written notice of your desire to cancel.
- Multi-level marketing: Critics of Legal Shield sometimes point out that associates earn commissions and are incentivized to recruit other associates. If this multi-level marketing structure does not appeal to you, then Legal Shield may not be your best option.
Step 1: Determine if using online legal services is appropriate for your estate
There’s quite a bit of disagreement among lawyers regarding who needs to consult a lawyer for estate planning and who can do it all themselves using online services. Despite this dispute within the legal profession, websites with documents and legal software are greatly expanding consumer access to resources that might otherwise be unaffordable for them. Those with estates that are simple should have no problems with creating a valid will or other estate planning documents online.
Do-it-yourself estate planning isn’t the best solution for all seniors, however. Below we have outlined some instances in which you would be better off going directly to a lawyer:
- You have large or complicated assets.
- You’ve been widowed or divorced and/or have children from multiple marriages or partners.
- You have reason to believe someone will dispute your final wishes when you are gone.
- You are unsure who to name an executor or trustee of your will or living trust.
- You have a minor or special needs dependent.
- You know or suspect that someone is pressuring you to create (or alter) an estate plan in order to benefit himself or herself rather than for your benefit.
- You begin drafting an estate plan but become stuck or confused.
Some websites that provide documents online can also refer you to a lawyer, so don’t dismiss online legal help just because you may need extra advice.
Step 2: Compare the merits of wills and living trusts
Wills and living trusts fulfill similar goals of setting out a legal plan for what happens to your estate when you are gone. You’ll need to decide which one is better for you.
Wills: In a will you can designate a guardian if you happen to be caring for a minor, and you can plan who inherits what and how your debts will be paid. Wills are best for small estates, and setting them up require less time and energy than setting up a trust does.
Revocable living trusts: With a revocable living trust, you must take a more active role than you would with a will. You have to “fund” a trust, and that requires you to change the names on accounts and policies and to retitle things like cars and boats. This will certainly cost you extra time and money. However, by putting your possessions in the name of the trust you can keep them out of probate court.
A revocable living trust does not allow you to designate a guardian. This won’t be a drawback for most seniors, except perhaps those who have guardianship of a grandchild. If you need to establish a guardianship plan, you may be better off consulting a lawyer in any case.
Be aware that there are many other types of trusts not discussed in this guide. Some can shield you from estate taxes or reduce your countable income, but a revocable living trust cannot do either of these things. More specialized forms of trusts are not typically available online, though there may be exceptions.
Step 3: Consider adding durable power of attorney
Wills or living trusts are the foundation of an estate plan, but you should also look into other documents like medical and financial power of attorney. Having these documents in place can give you the comfort of knowing that when you are unable to communicate your wishes, a loved one (called your “agent” in power of attorney) will be allowed to step in for you and manage your health and money as you would have wanted. Consider also creating a living will that will allow you to specify your wishes for end of life healthcare. A living will and medical power of attorney work hand in hand.
Step 4: Approach those whom you wish to be executors, agents, or successor trustees
The job of an agent, executor, or successor trustee should not be given lightly. You want to pick people for these jobs who are not only honest, but also who are fit for the job outlined in the document. Before finalizing anything, discuss the position’s duties with the person you have in mind, and hear any of their questions or concerns about the work involved in the title.
Keep in mind that you need not name the same person in multiple decision-making roles. Your executor for your will can be different than the person who acts as your agent in your medical power of attorney document, for example. Also keep in mind that for most documents you are able to name an alternate person who will take over if the originally designated person is unavailable.
Step 5: Compare prices, plans, and products from multiple companies
As you compare what companies have to offer, this is a good time to revisit again the question of whether or not you need a lawyer. If you’ve become overwhelmed, it may be worth it for you to consult with a lawyer despite the cost. Some document websites offer a variety of ways to connect with lawyers that may be less expensive than you’d find elsewhere.
If you’ve found a site with documents or software that you like, compare the site to a few others before making a decision. Sometimes product bundles may offer the best value, but each site offers its products with a slightly different price structure. Many sites provide documents and attorney consultations through monthly or annual subscriptions, and if you choose one of these you’ll need to remember to cancel the subscription at the right time to avoid paying for something you no longer need.
Step 6: Sign, witness, and file the documents according to regulation
Each estate planning document should come with its own set of instructions on who needs to sign the document. Follow the instructions carefully so that the document will be valid. In most cases you should not sign more than one copy of a document, but you can keep or distribute unsigned copies for information purposes. Depending on the state you live in, some legal documents such as wills can be filed with the probate court before your death to make the probate process easier.
In a safety deposit box or in a local lawyers’ files is where many people choose to keep their estate planning documents, but the key is that your family knows where they are. Durable power of attorney documents should be kept somewhere very accessible for use in an emergency.
Step 7: Plan to review your estate planning documents regularly
You should review your estate planning documents often. Some experts recommend reading through your will every year during retirement, others recommend every three to five years.
If any of the following occurs you may want to update your will immediately regardless of when you last read or updated it:
- You lose or gain property or other assets.
- Your marital status changes.
- A death or estrangement changes your wishes regarding your assets.
- A new grandchild or great grandchild is born.
A minor change in a will can typically be accomplished with a document called a codicil that changes or removes a clause. Codicils are often available online, as are other revocation documents. A major change may require an entirely new document.
If your wishes regarding end of life care or who will make medical and financial decisions for you change, you can revoke or revise your advanced directives. Just be sure not only to revoke one document that no longer meets your needs but also to replace it with one that does.
Frequently Asked Questions
What makes a will valid?
If you make your document using a template online, the company you purchase from will probably provide information on your state’s specific requirements. States often require two or three signatures from unrelated witnesses who are not benefiting from the will. In probate court, these people will testify to the wills’ validity. Usually, a notary is not necessary.
The executor you name can also have an impact on the validity of the will. Some states have special requirements about the relationship between the testator and executor.
If you move to a new state, find out if you need to change your will or not. Because a will that’s not signed correctly can be declared invalid, you may want to check information provided by the document company against state law.
Can financial abuse happen during estate planning?
It’s normal for your children or other close relatives to want you to put your affairs in order, and willingly making them part of your estate planning can be a great experience for you. However, if someone in your life, related or not, is pressuring you to sign estate planning documents that you don’t approve of or don’t understand, you could be experiencing financial abuse.
Financial abuse can happen even to those in excellent mental health. Don’t let the fear of being labeled incompetent prevent you from speaking up about a situation you are uncomfortable with. Discuss suspicious or coercive behavior you are experiencing with law enforcement, a social worker, or a family member you trust.
Can I get some estate planning documents from my state government?
Before purchasing a document or subscription, you should look into whether or not your state government provides some estate planning documents at no cost. States vary, but many offer some form of advanced directives for free. Typing the document name and the state name followed by “.gov” into a search engine may help you discover if the state itself provides the document.
Does my will or trust override other financial documents I have signed?
Not necessarily. Having a will or trust that reflects your current wishes for your estate is crucial, but if other documents like life insurance policies or a 401K are not up to date, you may have a problem. The beneficiary named in an insurance policy or retirement plan often legally trumps the one named in a will, so you need to make sure your documents are aligned.
Who can contest my will or living trust?
Very few people have legal standing to contest your will or living trust once you are gone. State laws vary, but generally, a spouse, child, or grandchild can contest a will if they have not been included in it. Someone that you named as a beneficiary in a different document and then cut out of your current one might also legally have the standing to contest the current document. There are often time limits on contesting a will, and the one contesting it must be able to prove it’s invalid according to strict legal definitions.
How can I find someone experienced in elder law for issues other than estate planning?
Most of what we have covered in our guide has to do with DIY estate planning. If you or your loved one need to consult a lawyer experienced in elder law for some other problem, or if your estate planning requires more advanced help, you may want to access the websites for the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys or the National Elder Law Foundation to search for experienced elder law lawyers in your area.