In the wonderfully titled 1682 book “Humane Prudence, or, The Art by which a Man May Raise Himself and Fortune to Grandeur” by William De Britaine, the author observes “he who will be his own Counsellour, shall be sure to have a Fool for his Client.” Proverbs 12:15 expresses the same sentiment in a more productive way when it states, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Both sources point to the truth that a person cannot objectively and wisely guide himself, as it is impossible for him to be objective when it affects him personally. We all know this to be true, yet efficiencies of money and time often tempt us to ignore the wisdom and forge ahead foolishly as our own guide. The area of estate planning is no stranger to this foolhardiness, so please accept this list as encouragement to invest in a professional estate plan instead of risking your legacy and your family’s future for the thrill of saving a few dollars (not really) and a few minutes (also unlikely).
1. Estate planning involves laws that you may not understand.
In the age of the internet, many people are emboldened to do their own research and replace the professionals in their lives with their own conclusions. In many cases, this is a blessing, as professionals with ulterior motives are now faced with clients and patients who have access to facts relevant to their treatment that they would not have known in the past. With the law, however, this situation only allows people to gather enough information to be dangerous to themselves and their legal and financial plans. Clients often come to my office very confused about how IRS regulations, state laws, local probate practices and bank procedures work together. Often, those same clients draw erroneous conclusions about how those different rules interplay that could result in serious errors in their legal and financial strategy. Even lawyers who work in other areas of law know come to estate planning lawyers for assistance with their estate plans because they know enough to know that they don’t know enough to draft their own wills. Whether it’s done by a non-estate planning lawyer or an internet-researching sleuth, the likelihood of serious error is far higher than many assume.
2. Estate planning involves considerations of which you may not be aware.
Many clients who believe they have found the right form online or have cobbled together a legally sufficient document make mistakes in their plans because they lack the experience an estate planning attorney would have in knowing how things might become problematic, even if they are technically legally correct. Is it a good idea to give outright distributions to a 19-year-old family member? Should a mentally ill child receive a partial interest in real estate? Should adult children in three different states be co-executors of a will? Many questions like these do not get asked when people fill out homemade (or internet-made) estate planning documents, and this omission often results in significant problems for those left behind.
3. Administration of estates is critically impacted by how estate planning documents are drafted.
The stress of preparing documents people do not fully understand for situations people do not fully understand often results in drafters forgetting to consider how those documents will be administered in the event of the drafter’s incapacity or death. Will family members understand the directions or the drafter? Will beneficiary organizations be willing or able to comply with the demands or the drafter? Do the documents require things of executors or trustees that are chronologically or financially impossible? An objective estate planner can be sure that a client’s needs are met in a realistic way so that the administration of the client’s papers are a blessing to those left behind, not a burden or a byword.
4. Using online estate planning forms is risky and exposes you and your family.
I recently received an email from an online will preparation site offering to prepare my paperwork at no charge. As a professional who has seen so many terrible documents from these sites, I was enticed to click “proceed”, and did so. The first page to which I was directed required me to sign two forms to proceed. First, a disclaimer stated that the website had no legal responsibility to prepare an accurate or appropriate document. Second, a release of information stated that I authorized the website to release the information provided about me and every person I named in my documents to anyone they wished. Needless to say, that was the end of my trial run.
5. A professional estate plan will often save you more money than it costs.
Professional estate plans are called professionals for a reason. They can discuss your concerns about nursing home costs. They can discuss your concerns about tax burdens on you and your relatives. They can raise issues related to your estate they you have not considered, that will make your plan better and more of a blessing than you could have crafted. For these reasons and many more, they will save costs on unneeded taxes, future disputes, and unnecessary administration expenses.
If the peace of mind from knowing that your documents are done right isn’t enough to convince you, the fact that it will likely cost less in the long run should. We are all stewards of all our resources, so we need to be sure to extend that stewardship to planning for our departure and the transition of those resources to those left behind. Please reach out with any questions.