Byline: Harry S. Margolis
When I began writing this article, I was relatively pessimistic about the future of estate planning. The growth of online services and the elimination of the federal estate tax for all but the top 0.1 percent of families in terms of wealth are dampening the market for estate planning.
But now I'm feeling much more optimistic, buoyed by the demographics the large number of baby boomers needing estate plans) and the nature of this demographic most baby boomers feel more comfortable meeting with a trusted advisor than trusting an online service. So far, the interaction that happens during an in-person meeting can't be replaced by artificial intelligence.
Nevertheless, the practice of estate planning will change significantly over the next 10 to 20 years. Here are some the factors that will drive those changes and steps that a practitioner can take to stay ahead of these changes:
Online services, such as Nolo, LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Willing, offer relatively easy-to-use and very inexpensive do-it-yourself services for estate planning. LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer also offer connections to inexpensive attorneys to answer legal questions, though these lawyers will not prepare estate planning documents for their clients through these services.
Since they are all private companies, we don't know the number of customers who use their services. LegalZoom's website claims that 1.5 million of its consumers have created wills, which amounts to an average of about 100,000 a year since the site's founding, though undoubtedly it's selling many more now than it was in its early years.
My guess is that many more consumers start the process, and perhaps pay for the service, than actually complete their estate plans. Questions involving difficult decisions, such as who should serve as executor of an estate or guardian of minor children, can derail an estate planning session. Once derailed, many clients will not get back on track.
These online services undoubtedly will get more comprehensive as they develop over time and respond to questions and situations raised by their customers. However, there can be a problem of balancing sophistication and ease of use. The more detailed the questions the programs ask and contingencies they cover, the more likely it is that their customers will get bogged down and fail to complete their estate plans.
In theory, a law firm could automate all its estate planning...