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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Current Trends - Online Platforms for Estate Planning - Episode 134

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another Legal Tea episode today, episode one hundred and thirty-four! Today’s episode is a “current trends” episode where we talk about things going on currently that is relevant and pertinent to my estate and elder law world, and/or maybe things I’ve seen on the news or stumbled across on social media that are also relevant to my estate/elder law world. Well, on today’s “current trends” episode, we’re going to chat about online estate planning platforms – you may have seen them on tv during commercials; you may have been recommended to them by your financial advisor, etc. It seems more and more are popping up – and in effort to “address” them and perhaps, share my general thoughts, I figured I’d do a whole podcast episode on them. So, lets dive in!

 I want to start with talking about how many people fail to do estate planning – I could have probably looked up some statistics for this episode, but just know … A LOT (honestly, too many) people do not do any type of estate planning documents. In fact, a quick little story – I agreed to do some estate planning for a local-to-me police department’s officers and staff. In total, I’m doing 44 officers and staff’s estate planning – you want to guess how many of the 44 had an existing estate plan? One. ONE! That’s 2.2% of the department had an estate plan. This is extra wild to me given the profession they are in. Now, this is a small example, but this represents a larger issue of people failing to do any estate planning documents. There are about a million reasons WHY – affordability, lack of prioritizing it, access to attorneys, etc.

Now, I start with this because I will not deny that MORE people should do estate planning – and that’s what these companies and platforms are standing on; that, they are making estate planning more accessible to more people. I’ll support that – that’s actually why I volunteered my time to do the police department officer and staff’s documents – I believe in getting estate planning documents in the hands of more people.

One of my biggest gripes about the online estate planning platforms was lack of quality – but there have been some that have instilled more of my confidence for sure – and actually, even one in particular asked me and compensated to review their Indiana documents and edit them to my liking. Indiana because I’m a licensed Indiana attorney. I will admit that it appears that these platforms’ quality has gotten better than even a few years ago, BUT there are a few things that I’d like to discuss under this “online estate planning platform” umbrella to really share my honest thoughts.

First, a large concern of mine is that many people think their situation is “simple” or “basic” – and my fear is that they will do an estate plan to accomplish ABC goal when in fact the legal consequence of their plan is accomplishing something that is not ABC. Let’s use a couple examples to demonstrate my point – first, asset ownership and beneficiary designations alongside an estate plan. A concern of mine is that some may do their Will or their Trust through a platform – and think that the mere document will throw on their superhero cape if you pass away to take care of everything. In reality, you need to review ownership of assets and beneficiary designations to ensure that the TOTAL plan will work – and not just what you THINK is going to happen. That’s what I mean about … I fear that someone will think ABC is going to happen and then ABC doesn’t happen at all – all because there was a lack of understanding the law and legal consequences.

A second large concern of mine is that as many of us know, sometimes people need an immense amount of accountability to follow-through on various actions to make sure the entire estate plan works as it should. A perfect example of what I mean by this is trust funding – if you do a Trust, a vital part of the process is to a process called funding. Funding is the part where you need to change ownership of assets and change beneficiaries on assets to make sure the TOTAL plan works as it should.

In my experience, there are an absolute ton of people out there that have trusts that are not funded – meaning they have not taken the initiative to change assets into the trust or update beneficiaries to be in alignment with the trust plan. My office meets with people like this multiple times a week – where they’ll come to us to update or change their current estate plan that involves a Trust, and when we start asking about their assets, we learn the Trust doesn’t own anything. So, it’s a big ol’ pile of paper that really isn’t do much of anything. Now, there are some people in this world, myself being one, that generally speaking need NO accountability. I’m my father’s daughter – and I’m a very Type A. organized, efficient, need-to-get-a-gold-star kind of person. Though, in my day-to-date business management, I have learned that MOST people are quite the opposite. Most people need accountability; not because they’re being lazy or malicious, but rather because the juggling of all-the-things becomes too much and balls start to drop.

For that reason, if I stick with this example, I have a full-time person on my team that their entire job is devoted to funding – to help the client and hold the client accountable to getting the funding DONE. The online estate planning platforms may explain what funding is and how to do it – but there’s no hand-holding quite like another human. Now, you could have other professionals in your life – say, a financial advisor, that takes the initiative to help get things funded, but I hope you’re working with a very thorough and engaged advisor if that is your game plan. Not to mention, I’m not sure an advisor wants the job of establishing a trust funding plan – they may help you execute on the plan, but have you considered there’s a legitimate strategy to what goes into a Trust, what stays out, etc.?

Lastly, I think it’s important to also recognize and understand that an online estate planning platform may fit a situation and need for a lot of people – but what those that utilize a platform need to understand is the loss of counseling by an attorney and relationship with a law firm. Like I said earlier in this episode, I will not deny that MORE people need to do estate planning – but the common denominator that the platforms are missing is the human element – and even more specifically, the human attorney element.

Now, before I go on, I need to mention that many of the newer platforms allow for those that use their platforms to pay $X and speak to an attorney. I get that. I’d be remiss if I did not clarify that some platforms offer this feature and for that, I’m thankful. There are SO MANY things that simply are better off with an attorney’s involvement – here are a few examples: first, what if we have special needs beneficiaries who we need to make sure do not lose any government benefits like Medicaid; or, beneficiaries that have addictions or are bad with money – as in maybe they’re better-served by having additional, more customized planning in a Will or Trust. An attorney, not an online platform. is going to help you figure out what options are best for you and your beneficiaries.

Somewhat along these lines, I do not know of a platform that helps individuals help create irrevocable trusts. Whether you believe it or not, a lot of people do irrevocable trusts as part of their estate plan for reasons like asset protection against long-term care, tax strategies like estate tax planning, etc. I am somewhat concerned about people that think their estate is “simple” or “basic” – do a very simple estate plan on an online platform, when in reality maybe they could have been better-served by doing asset protection planning against long-term care costs. I have a TON of clients that do this type of planning to help with the potential future cost of long-term care – and maybe cannot afford long-term care insurance. I suppose the thing to take away from this point is – make sure you are considering ALL estate documents, ALL options and not just assume what they offer is all you may want or need.

So, that is my final point here – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: MORE people need to get their estate plan done – and that’s what these companies and platforms are standing on; that, they are making estate planning more accessible to more people. I’ll support that. However, like everything in this world, there are things to know, consider, and understand when considering utilizing an online platform. There are three primary things you’d be “missing” (if that is what we want to call it) by using a platform RATHER than an attorney:

1) the true legal consequences – you may think your plan is going to do ABC and in reality, your plan does XYZ2) accountability … a lot of humans need hand-holding to make sure ALL Ts are crossed and ALL Is are dotted; and3) the relationship and counseling that an attorney adds to the process and conversation.

I hope this episode did not come across as me shaming online platforms for estate planning documents. That was certainly not my goal, by any means. Rather, I wanted to share my thoughts because 1) I keep getting asked what my thoughts are and 2) these platforms are going to increase in popularity. At the end of the day, good for getting estate documents in the hands of MORE people. As I finish my thoughts .. I’ll say at the end of the day, we have to make decisions. This is just another decision you have to make that relates to your future, your money, and the final gift you give to your family and beneficiaries. Be aware. Be smart. Be mindful of your options and do what is best for you and your family. That’s all, my friends!

Alrighty, let’s wrap this episode up, shall we? Next week, we’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” type of episode – and during those types of episodes, we dive into a celebrity or “big name” person that has passed away and how their estate looked from an estate planning perspective. Next week’s episode is about Susan Buffett – and you probably recognize the last name at least (Warren Buffett) – Susan was the first wife of Warren and had quite the elaborate estate plan, so let’s talk about it next week, shall we? Alrighty, Legal Tea Listeners, talk to you next week and stay well!



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