By Cory Howes
There are many software programs, as well as websites, that sell do-it-yourself legal documents, including company formation, contracts, and even estate planning documents. These websites and form tools seem to offer a convenient and cost-effective alternative to consulting with an attorney. But in the case of estate planning, do they really meet your needs and protect your family? Is online, DIY estate planning worth the perceived upfront savings?
Penny Wise and Pound Foolish
In all but the simplest scenarios, do-it-yourself estate planning is risky and can become a costly substitute for comprehensive in-person planning with an experienced estate planning attorney. Typically, these online programs and services have significant limitations when it comes to gathering information needed to properly craft an estate plan. This can result in crucial defects that, sadly, won’t become apparent until the situation becomes a legal and financial nightmare for your loved ones.
Creating your own estate plan without professional advice can also have unintended consequences. Bad or thoughtless documents can be invalid and/or useless when they are needed. For example, you can create a plan that has no instructions for when a beneficiary passes away or when a specific asset left to a loved one no longer exists. You may create a trust on your own but fail to fund it, resulting in your assets being tied up in probate courts, potentially for years. Worse yet, what you leave behind may then pass to those you did not intend.
Your family situation and assets are unique. Plus, each state has its own laws governing what happens when someone becomes incapacitated or dies. These nuances may not be adequately addressed in an off-the-shelf document. In addition, non-traditional families, or those with a complicated family arrangement, require more thorough estate planning. The options available in a do-it-yourself system may not provide the solutions that are necessary. A computer program or website cannot replicate the intricate knowledge a knowledgeable local estate planning attorney will have and use to apply to your particular circumstances.
If you’re a person of significant wealth, then concerns about income and estate taxes enter the picture too. In addition to the federal estate tax, some states have a separate estate tax with significantly different tax thresholds. An online estate planning website or program that prepares basic wills without taking into account the size of the estate can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in increased (and usually completely avoidable) tax liability. A qualified estate planning attorney will know how to structure your legal affairs to properly manage – or, in many cases, even avoid – the burden of the death tax as well as minimize the impact of ongoing income taxes.
One important aspect of estate planning is protecting adult children from the negative financial consequences of divorce, bankruptcy, lawsuits, or illness. An online planning tool will not take these additional steps into account when putting together what is usually a basic estate plan. Similarly, parents who have children or adult loved ones with special needs must take extra caution when planning. There are complicated rules regarding government benefits that these loved ones may receive that must be considered, so that valuable benefits are not lost due to an inheritance.
Finally, even if your legal documents state your wishes accurately and are valid, if your property is not properly coordinated with your estate planning documents your plan may not work as intended. A will or trust do not control all of your assets, so it is essential to review how your assets are titled as well as your beneficiary designations to ensure your estate planning goals will be achieved.
Consult an Estate Planning Attorney
No matter how good a do-it-yourself estate planning document may seem, it is no substitute for personalized advice. DIY doesn’t just mean using templated documents—it means, in effect, that you are your own lawyer. Estate planning is more than just document production. In many cases, the right legal solution to your situation may not be addressed by these do-it-yourself products – affecting not just you, but generations to come. To make sure you are fully protecting your family, contact me at the firm today.