LEGAL ADVICE—The Risks of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning

By on April 12, 2015
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By ELIZABETH WYNN

Every year thousands of individuals create their own wills, powers of attorney, and other estate planning documents with the help of online tools and books. Some people, even those in the legal field, think that a do-it-yourself (DIY) document is better than no document at all. I disagree, and suggest that you consider the potential negative consequences of doing your own planning versus the benefits of consulting an experienced attorney. In many cases the cost of correcting problems created by DIY estate planning is more expensive than paying a professional to do it for you.

  1. AVOID MISTAKES. A lawyer can help you prevent mistakes. You may not understand legal terms. For example, in your power of attorney, you may unintentionally give someone more legal authority than you want. This could essentially give them total control over your assets if you are incapacitated. Estate planning documents are incredibly complex and require attention to detail. Documents must be properly executed. You may need a witness to your signature. The document may require a notary. Even then it may not be legally binding. One incorrect question, overlooking one particular situation, or omitting pertinent information can lead to major mistakes later.
  2. “WHAT IF” QUESTIONS. Attorneys are trained and experienced in unknowns and variables. Therefore, determining contingencies is a major part of estate planning, and without an experienced attorney, you will probably be unprepared for all the possible situations, such as death of a beneficiary or disposing of later-acquired assets. One of the most common issues attorneys hear from potential clients is “I’ve never thought of that”. Estate planning attorneys know the questions to ask and what to do with the answers given. Many particulars can change even in a short period of time. People pass away, relationships end and it is important that you plan for every possible situation. In order to do so, it is best to consult a knowledgeable attorney.
  3. MINIMIZE COSTS. The value of your estate can be reduced by costly probate expenses, including court costs, attorney’s fees, executor’s fees, publication fees, bonds, and formal appraisals. An attorney can help you minimize these costs, which maximizes the assets and property left to your loved ones.
  4. KNOW THE LAWS. Not knowing what is legally appropriate is another problem of DIY estate planning. Each state has its own laws concerning estate-planning issues. In order for your documents to be valid, they must comply with your state’s laws. For example, if you disinherit a person who, by law, cannot by excluded, that person may end up with a larger share of your estate than if you had left them a nominal amount. If you use a DIY form document, it is likely that no consideration was given to the laws of a specific state. In this area, it is very important to have a professional tell you what is or is not legal.
  5. CONTINUING SUPPORT. DIY sources usually come with a disclaimer similar to this: This is not a law firm, and it is not a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any type of legal advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about your legal rights, defenses, or options. These sources readily admit that they are not attorneys. Another variable to consider is that DIY sources do not have well-trained and highly competent legal staff ready to assist you with any further actions you must take. Hiring a well-established law firm will give you peace of mind knowing you will have continued support.

Don’t risk doing your own estate planning. It won’t be you who realizes you were not equipped to do the job. Instead, those learning this lesson will be the loved ones you have left behind at your death. DIY estate planning may be tempting because it is cheap and easy, but in the long run, you will probably save time and money by contacting an estate-planning specialist to discuss goals for your estate and your best options.