By WILLIAM B. HOWELL
Some people suggest that having legal work done without using the services of a lawyer is closely akin to having dental work done without using the services of a dentist. The question is: Do you really want to do that?And another question that comes into play is: Do you have the expertise to know exactly what is needed?
There is software readily available on CDs ranging in price from in the neighborhood of $10.00 to $100.00 or more. On almost all the packaging it states that the documents are legal in all 50 states. However, there’s a huge difference between being “legal” and being effective. A document can be perfectly legal (that is legally valid), but at the same time not be legally effective because it does not confer the correct rights or contain the proper wording in compliance with the laws of a given state or with the requirements of a bank or other institution with whom you are going to attempt to use the document.
The temptation to save money is not a bad motivation. The question arises though, is saving money now going to lead to more expense later? If the prepared documents are ineffective or incomplete, then you may end up with court involvement, which will also include having lawyers involved, and the probably large expense later on. It will be discovered that these documents that have been prepared by the “do-it-yourselfer” don’t actually work.
The things that you will do in the area of estate planning in particular have the likelihood of affecting your family’s wellbeing for possibly generations to come. Do you really want to do it other than with correctness? Do you have the experience or expertise to ensure that you have done what is best for your family? Do you get legal advice from the source that you are attempting to utilize as an aid in this endeavor?
There are numerous sites on the Internet that will prepare legal documents for you. However, before you get those documents done and rely upon them for the benefit of your family, you need to carefully read the disclaimers that they put on there and to which you must agree in order to utilize their services. One such site has stated specifically that they are not engaged in giving legal services, that the information on their website is not guaranteed to be accurate or even current, and all of them suggest very strongly that you get the services of an attorney in order to solve any unusual or complex situations that you may have.
That begs the question: How do you know whether you have a complex or serious question or not? Again, do you have the expertise to know whether your situation is simple or complex? I have seen situations where people were dividing their estate equally among their three children and thought it was extremely simple and yet, due to the situation of one or more of the children or the nature of one or more of their assets, it was far from simple and required a great deal of careful drafting in order to prevent a disaster that would cost many thousands of dollars.
In short, you may do it yourself in many areas, but this is one that you should be very much aware that, when you choose to do your own planning documents without the benefit of legal advice, you are taking a great risk for yourself, for your assets and for your family.
William B. Howell is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and practices law in Ridgeland.