If you are like me, you take pride in completing a DIY project. On top of doing the project yourself, you saved yourself a little bit of money and maybe some hassle (like being home to let the contractor into you house. Some DIY projects are easy such as hanging a picture; others are more challenging such as electrical work. I’ve learned over the years that there is a time and a place for DIY projects and a time for professionals to be called. Often, the risks of incorrectly doing a project outweigh the costs of calling a professional. This holds true for estate planning as well.
Some people think Estate Planning can be a DIY project. You simply go online to a website and plug in your information and, magically, a will or power of attorney is produced. You get it notarized and you are ready to go. It seems easy enough. However, when does a DIY’er know if they are doing it correctly? Just like doing a house project you sometimes do not know all the ramifications of what you are doing. That wall you removed may actually be load bearing and now you have a problem. By attempting to use a DIY estate planning tool, people can end up causing more problems.
For example, a will must be properly executed to be valid. If a will is not executed in front of witnesses, then the court may throw it out. This is exactly what happened to a gentleman in New Jersey. Matter of Will of Feree. He did his own will using a do-it-yourself program. He also decided to add some additional handwritten requests to the preprinted form. These handwritten remarks ended up causing a fight that went to court. The New Jersey Courts found that the handwritten part of the will was not admissible (and therefore, not enforceable) because it was not properly signed by Mr. Feree. Mr. Feree saved some money doing his own will but it lead in this circumstance to 1. Family Dispute; 2. Lawsuits; and 3. Ultimately the defeat of his wishes. This could all have been avoided if he would have spent a few dollars and went to an estate planning attorney.
So what are some of the problems with DIY estate plans: First, estate planning is not just completing forms. An experienced estate planning attorney will go through various options available to you and your family and the best ways for you to meet your goals. Every family is a little different and not all situations should be treated the same. An experienced estate planning attorney can assist you with achieving the best outcomes such as protecting your hard earned money from your beneficiaries’ predators and creditors.
An attorney, because of their experience, can anticipate where there may be future problems either with the family or with the administration of your estate. An attorney can also make certain that the language you use actually creates a testamentary intent. Your DIY will may be written in a manner that the language is not dispositive and thus renders the will unenforceable. An attorney can also guide you through certain income and estate tax issues that can arise on death.
Much like the home project that goes haywire, the DIY estate plan can cost families more time and money than if a professional was called in the first place. The role of an Estate Planning Attorney is to be a counselor in explaining your different options and pointing out some of the pitfalls that may be lurking. Computer generated forms are simply not comparable to the advice that an Estate Planning Attorney can provide. The estate planning process should not be scary. It is much more frightening to think about what could happen if your plan is defective.
Pat has been practicing law for almost 20 years and focuses his practice on all aspects of estate planning. Understanding that the estate planning process is very personal, Pat takes the time to listen to his clients’ goals and concerns and empowers his clients so they can make decisions that can produce the best outcomes.