Why Not Create Your Own Estate Planning Documents?
There are many software programs, as well as websites, that sell do-it-yourself estate planning documents. These websites and form tools seem to offer a convenient and cost-effective alternative to consulting with an estate planning attorney. But do they really meet your needs and protect your family? Is online, do-it-yourself 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 a professional legal advisor. 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, will not 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 Particular Facts Matter
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 qualified local estate planning attorney will have and use to apply to your particular circumstances.
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.
A Square Peg in a Round Hole
If you are 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 systems 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.
"An educated consumer is our best customer"
Sy Sims, a clothing retailer, made this slogan famous from 1974 to the 2011. His thought was the more informed his customers were, the more likely they would recognize the quality he offered and the value they received. I agree. The more informed a person when they meet with an estate planning attorney the more valuable their consultation will be, and the more involved they will be in the development in THEIR estate plan. This should be the real value of Nolo, the many other websites, do-it-yourself estate planning services, television personalities, and books. They are valuable tools to help prepare, inform, and educate people about estate planning, identify some of the questions they should be asking, and provide them with the ability assess whether they are working with the right estate planning attorney for them. But, just like WebMD should not replace an actual visit to a physician, an online estate planning service, should not replace a visit an estate planning attorney.
Consult an Estate Planning Attorney
I heard someone compare do-it-yourself estate planning to do-it-yourself eye surgery. Of course, you should never do either! But, at least with the eye surgery, if you get it wrong the first time, you have a second chance.
No matter how good a do-it-yourself estate planning document may seem, it is no substitute for personalized advice and customized comprehensive estate plan. 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, call us at 301.892.2713 today. We are here to help.
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