The internet offers all the information and tools we need at our fingertips to create our own estate plan, right? For most people, this is simply not true. Several years ago, Consumer Reports®, an independent nonprofit consumer watchdog group, created wills using the forms provided by DIY websites and asked three law professors to review them. Although the professors found that the wills drafted using the DIY services were better than wills drafted by non-lawyers on their own, they were inadequate to fully meet the needs of most consumers. Although your DIY “estate plan” may initially cost only $49.95, it may end up being much more costly than an estate plan designed by an experienced estate planning attorney.
The fact is, wills are only one part of a comprehensive estate plan that fully protects you and your family. Even if your DIY will meets all your state’s requirements and is legally valid, the will alone is unlikely to be sufficient to address all of your estate planning needs. Furthermore, DIY packages you can buy online that purport to be comprehensive may not include important documents you may be unaware that you need. Without expertise in a particular area, we simply don’t know what we don’t know—and this could lead to unnecessary heartache for you or the family and loved ones you will one day leave behind.
Here are the top 5 most common pitfalls of the DIY approach:
1. DIY estate plans may not conform to the applicable law. The law that applies to estate planning is determined by each state—and there can be wide variations in the law from state to state. Although the forms you can find on the internet may claim to conform to your state’s law, this may not always be the case. In addition, if you own property in another state or country, the laws in those jurisdictions may differ significantly, and your DIY estate plan may not adequately account for them.
2. A DIY estate plan could contain inaccurate, incomplete, or contradictory information. For example, if you create a will using an online questionnaire, there is the possibility that you may select the wrong option or leave out important information that could prevent your will from accomplishing your goals. In addition, some online services allow users to insert additional information not addressed by their questionnaire that could contradict other parts of the will.
3. Your DIY estate plan may not account for changing life circumstances and different scenarios that could arise. For example, if you create a will in which you leave everything to your two children, what happens if one of those children dies before you? Will that child’s share go entirely to his or her sibling—or will it go to the child’s offspring? What if one of your children accumulates a lot of debt? Is it okay with you if the money or property the indebted child inherits is vulnerable to claims of the child’s creditors? What if your will states your daughter will receive the family home as her only inheritance, but it is sold shortly before you die? Will she inherit nothing? As opposed to a computer program, an experienced estate planning attorney will help you think through the potential changes and contingencies that could have an impact on your estate plan and design a plan that prevents unintended results that could frustrate your estate planning goals.
4. DIYers frequently make mistakes in executing the plan. Under the law, there are certain requirements that must be met for wills and other estate planning documents to be legally valid. For example, a will typically requires the signatures of two witnesses, but state law differs regarding what is necessary for a will to be validly witnessed. Some states require not only that the will be signed by the will maker and the witnesses, but also that they all must sign the will in each other’s presence. In other states, witnesses are not required to be in the same room when the will maker signs the will, and they can even sign it later if the will maker tells them his or her signature is valid. Similarly, for a valid power of attorney, some states require only the signature of the principal (the person who is granting the power of attorney) to be notarized, but some states require the signatures of both the principal and the agent (the person who will act on behalf of the principal) to be notarized. In other states, one or more witnesses are required—and these requirements may also differ depending upon the type of power of attorney (financial vs. medical) you are trying to execute. If you seek the help of an estate planning attorney, you can rest assured that all of the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed, and that your intentions will not be defeated because of mistakes made during the execution of your documents.
5. Assets may be left out of your estate plan. Many people do not realize that a trust is frequently a better estate planning tool than a will because it avoids expensive, time-consuming, and public court proceedings (i.e., the probate process) that would otherwise be necessary to transfer your money and property to your heirs after you pass away. Even if you have created a DIY trust, if you do not fund it, that is, transfer title of your money and property into the name of the trust, it will be ineffective, and your loved ones will still have to endure the probate process to finish what you started. Further, if you do initially transfer title of all your assets to the trust, it is likely you will acquire additional property or financial accounts over the years that must go through probate if title is not transferred to the trust. Regular meetings with an estate planning attorney can help ensure that your plan accomplishes your goals and that your grieving family members are not left with stressful decisions and challenges.
We Can Help
A DIY estate plan can lead to a false sense of security because it may not achieve what you think it does. If your DIY will is not valid, your property and money will go to heirs specified by state law—who may not be the people you would have chosen. An unfunded trust will be ineffective. Banks may not accept a generic power of attorney you found on the internet. Laws affecting your estate plan may change. These are just some of the mistakes or unforeseen issues that could cost your family dearly. An experienced estate planning attorney is aware of any trends in the law that could dramatically affect your estate plan and has the expertise needed to help you design and create a comprehensive plan.
Call Miller, Miller & Canby today at 301-762-5212 to schedule a meeting so we can help provide you and your family with the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have an estate plan that accomplishes your goals and will avoid unnecessary attorneys’ fees, headaches, or conflict.
David A. Lucas is an attorney in the Estates & Trusts and Business & Tax practice groups at Miller, Miller & Canby. He focuses his practice in Estate Planning and Trust and Estate Administration. He provides extensive estate and legacy planning, asset protection planning, and retirement planning.