Free Will Preparation Software? or Free Initial Consultation?
 

Back in the early 1960s, a famous will and trust form book was published that probably sold over a million copies or so to the public.  You tore the forms out of the book, filled them out and signed them to create wills and trusts. 

The idea was that an attorney was not really needed; although, the book itself was more of a direct attack on the probate system as it existed in certain parts of the United States.  The book may even have had some positive impact as far a legislative changes in these jurisdictions, but it created other problems.

By the time that I became a lawyer, the book had mainly run its course.  Much older attorneys told me that they had made substantially more than they normally would have when people died who had used the forms.  I understand that when it came time to probate their wills and administer their trusts after their deaths and determine who their assets were going to, it was often a problem.

There were sometimes interpretive difficulties, since the forms were fairly short and did not cover numerous contingencies.  People also had the tendency to add inconsistent provisions or they misunderstood what they were supposed to put into the blanks.  In other cases, people did not follow their own state procedures for the execution of the documents and they were not valid.

The point is that the use of the forms without legal advice could cause significant problems.  Most lawyers would not use the forms as part of their practices for fear of malpractice concerns.  Often people forget that an attorney is held to a much higher legal standard than the author of a book, who is not held to any standard other than "the buyer beware" and "how many books can be sold."
 
From 1978 until 1983, I was a trust officer and often gave seminars on estate planning to the public.  As part of my presentation, I talked about these self-help type books, since by then I had actually read and reviewed most of the forms and had found many of them to be substantially deficient or no more than minimally sufficient under limited circumstances.  I also realized that as a trust officer who administered trusts and estates, it would be difficult to administer one based upon the forms in the book.  I offered the forms to the participants, but explained to them that I did not recommend that they fill them out or use them.

Sometime in the early 1980s after I went back into the private practice of law, while in Atlanta, I ran across a virtual storehouse of these old form books that they could not sell.  They were selling them for 99 cents each.  I bought a stack of them about 4 feet high.  I placed them in the corner of my office when I was on Bow Circle and offered them to prospective clients who thought that estate planning attorneys just "pressed a couple of buttons to produce the documents."  People often misunderstood that the planning and matching of the documents with the plan is as important a part of the process as is the proper execution of the documents and the follow up that is needed.

The old books are long gone, but they have been replaced by will preparation software.  There is not really any difference between these and the old book.  Even the book tried to explain when a particular document may be appropriate, as does the software.  They both let you fill in blanks and add information.

Every year or so, I will buy one of the programs and try them out.  If you are an experienced estate planning attorney, you may even be able to use some of them.  However, sometimes when you answer their question and answer sessions, the documents are not really appropriate for the answers to the questions or the questions themselves are not clear and elicit the wrong answers.  The problem is that it takes an experienced estate planning attorney to know when the output is not appropriate based upon the input.

Most of the programs also caution you and make you check a statement that they are not giving legal advice and that the advice of an attorney is important.  Often they affirmatively recommend that you take the document to a lawyer for review and for the lawyer to supervise the signing.

Most lawyers will not do this because of the malpractice and ethical risks.  The lawyer will have to read the document or documents line by line and compare them with their own documents to make sure that they contain the provisions that they would normally recommend.  The lawyer also has to have a certain amount of financial and other information to determine if the document is appropriate for the client.

Often a letter to the client to document the advice has to be given.  The lawyers must then supervise the signing of the documents with another member of their staff.  By the time the review and supervision of the signing by the lawyer takes place, it would have been safer and much more cost effective to have let the lawyer draft the document in the first place.

If you read what the software company says, they often lead you to believe that you have done all the work and it takes no time for the lawyer to review the work and supervise the signing.  By the way, an error in the execution of a will, itself, is one of the most common reasons for a will not being valid.  Also, even if the will is valid, what it says may or may not work.

Don't get me wrong, the software does produce a will, a trust, a power of attorney and other documents, which may be legally sufficient in the right hands.  You can also buy similar forms at your local office supply company.  These forms are even more like the old book.

The more that I thought about it, the more that I have missed having that 4 foot stack of free form books for my "prospective" clients who prefer to do it themselves.  Then a great idea came to me.  

I went on the internet and ordered a dozen of the will preparation programs.  I got a great deal.  They were $7.00 each, including shipping to my office.  I also noted that someone had updated the old form book.  I could have picked up used copies of it for as little as 6 cents this time around.

Now, if you think that all it takes is "the push of a button" and you can do it yourself with software, have I got a deal for you.  We will give you the software for free.  All you have to do is acknowledge, in writing, having read this article on our website and that we did not advice you to use it and we did not give you any legal advice and you assume all the risks inherent in using the software.

Since I only ordered a dozen copies, the offer is limited to the quantities on hand.  You have to call before you come in so that we can have it ready when you come in to pick up the software and sign the release.  This offer is further limited to retired permanent residents of Hilton Head Island, Sun City Hilton Head, Bluffton, and Beaufort, as well as the rest of Beaufort and Japer Counties.  This is a no obligation offer and no one will contact you or try to talk you into a meeting or try to sell you anything.

Now, if on the other hand, you are hesitant to do it yourself, then rather than free software, you may want to take advantage of our free initial consultation.  If so, please go to our "Free Consultation" section and follow the instructions.  

The free consultation is limited in time and only to certain specified individuals.  The time is limited to a maximum equal to 1 hour at my billing rate, but can be less than 1 hour if I am not the only person working on the file or can be more than 1 hour if an associate attorney handles the consultation.  There is also information that you need to provide prior to the conference.

We have to place limits because often people submit a tremendous amount of information and documentation and we need to review it prior to our meeting.  However, if we only receive what we ask for and in the form requested at least 24 hours prior to the meeting, you will receive up to 1 hour of consultation time with an attorney.  

Although we enjoy your company, please keep in mind that if you stay an extra half hour or hour or more, the cost can add up quickly and we do not want you to be disappointed by being billed, if you did not anticipate a charge.  However, we do charge for the excess time.

There is a further limitation.  You can not use the free initial consultation for us to review a will or other document that you prepared, yourself, using the free software.

Best Wishes and Good Luck,


Michael J. Howell