Pros and Cons of Hiring an Estate Planning Lawyer: Can’t I just buy a trust online?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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In some circumstances, it may be perfectly appropriate to simply purchase and download a trust online. In other cases, it is best to have an attorney examine your situation to make sure that your wishes will be fulfilled after your death. Read on for specific information about when it is time to consult a lawyer and when you might be able to skip it.

When can I use an online trust form?

You can consider using an online trust form if:

  1. If your total estate is less than your state’s minimum probate requirements. With smaller estate sums, your estate will still avoid probate and the inheritance will still be less than the estate tax minimums should the trust not be upheld.
  2. If your entire estate is in one state. If all of your worldly possessions are in Arizona, for instance, then an Arizona approved trust form will be upheld in Arizona. Your trust will usually succeed and your wishes will be honored.
  3. If the trust is meant for beneficiaries who are of sound mind and are not minors.
  4. If you already have an existing portfolio with an investment company. One of the primary functions of an attorney is to make sure that items are correctly transferred into the trust. If the majority of your assets are already in the care of an investor, you can obtain the proper transfer forms from them and do the transfers yourself very easily, if you have sufficient knowledge about real estate transactions. If you have ever bought or sold a house, then you know about the forms that must be filed with the county office for property transfers. These forms can be picked up and filled out by anyone.

When should I consult an attorney?

You should strongly consider working with an attorney if:

  1. If your total estate is more than $100,000. This is the highest amount of money permitted by the probate court for an estate to avoid probate.
  2. If you or the beneficiaries have substantial debt. Attorneys specialize in drafting trusts in such a way as to protect your assets from creditors. Should you draft the wrong kind of trust yourself through a purchased form, then creditors and the IRS can freely take money from the trust.
  3. If your total estate is more than $1 million dollars. As of 2010, this is the amount where estate taxes apply. Attorneys know of ways to slowly remove money from your estate and put it into the hands of beneficiaries and the trust before your death to reduce your overall tax loss. An online form can’t do that.If your estate includes any businesses. Every type of business requires the drafting of different forms in order to be placed into a trust. This should only be done by an attorney.
  4. If you own property in more than one state or country. Every state and country has their own probate laws and trust requirements. Only an attorney is going to have the proper knowledge and expertise at his disposal to create a trust that will be upheld.
  5. If the trust is for a mentally disabled person or a minor. Trusts of this type have special phrasing requirements to allow discretionary funds for care. Failure to include this wording will result in the trust being dissolved and your wishes not being followed.
  6. If the trust is for someone who is irresponsible with money. A special type of provision known as a “spend thrift” clause must be placed into the trust and proper drafting of the rest of the trust must match this provision. If either part is missing, then the beneficiary’s creditors will be able to take the beneficiary’s payments until debt is paid off.

In other words, as soon as things become complex, you will need to hire a lawyer to help. Even for seemingly simple transactions, it can often be worth the peace of mind to hire a professional. Remember, online forms aren’t legal advice and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you pay for or that the trust you create will be enforced. With a lawyer, you get professional expertise and a guarantee that your wishes will be upheld.

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