Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning

Let me summarize in one word my opinion on do-it-yourself estate planning by quoting Darth Vader’s immortal line as uttered in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, after Lord Vader is told of the death of Padme: “Nooooooooooo!”

The cover of Time magazine for January 3, 1983 has the title Machine of the Year: The Computer Moves In.  I remember when that issue was published. And I remember that inside the issue were dozens of tiny articles, squidgets, about different software applications that were then available for the IBM Personal Computer. When I read about a software application that let you create your own will, it caught my attention. My wife and I had recently welcomed our first baby into the family, and that little baby and his future were very much on our minds. Even though we didn’t even own a computer at the time, we knew it was important for us to have wills, so we bought the software. Although our budget was tight, we justified the expense with the thought that we could create our own wills and save the expense of having an attorney draft wills for us. And we could use the software in the future to update the wills as our family grew and our circumstances changed. In the long run we could create many wills for less than the cost of one visit to an attorney.

Having wills was important to us not because we had any personal or real property, but because we were parents and had a baby. We knew that should we die without wills in place, the court would decide who should care for our baby. We wanted to decide the guardian for our baby; we did not want the court to make the decision. So we bought the software and made our wills. And, in the course of subsequent years, we used that same software, as planned, to update our wills each time we added a child to our family or our family situation changed.

The years passed. A close friend began practicing estate planning law. We fed her dog and fish when she went on vacation, she gave us a discount on drafting our estate planning documents: living trust, wills, durable power of attorney for financial affairs, and an advance health care directive. It wasn’t an easy process making all those decisions and getting the plans put into place. But we did it. When we sat down with her to sign all the documents I learned several things:

  1. This attorney who specialized in estate planning knew more about estate planning than the software did.
  2. The wills we had drafted, though legal and acceptable, omitted very important points.
  3. The attorney did some things that made great sense, and which I had never heard of before, to better protect us.
  4. With our do-it-yourself estate planning we were not as prepared for the future as we thought we were.

Have you ever stopped the car and reached to unbuckle your seat-belt, only to find that either you had neglected to put it on at all, or the seat-belt was in place, but not actually latched? That is how I felt about our do-it-yourself wills after getting our estate plans done by the attorney. I felt like I had been going through life with a false sense of security.

That is why, when I am asked for my opinion on do-it-yourself estate planning, I quote Darth Vader:  “Nooooooooooo!”

(By way of disclosure, I should mention that estate planning attorneys have not paid me to endorse them in this article.)

When asked, I always direct people to attorneys who specialize in estate planning to have those plans created. Here is why:

  1. The attorney can ask questions to fully understand your personal situation and needs.
  2. The attorney can have the conversation with you on important questions you need to consider.
  3. The attorney can help you explore and understand various options, and what those options might mean to you.
  4. The estate planning documents will be done right. (And if for some reason they aren’t done right, you have recourse.) You will have “clicked” your seat-belt into place and will sleep better.
  5. By having the appropriate estate plan in place, you may be able to avoid the high cost of a conservatorship proceeding, if you ever lose capacity. You will have agents you have personally selected who will be able to make decisions and act on your behalf. The cost of having your full estate plan properly drafted by an attorney is a small fraction of the cost of a conservatorship proceeding.

Do yourself a favor: see an attorney who specializes in estate planning and get your estate plan in order. Yes, it will cost some money. It will cost you more money to do-it-yourself and do it wrong. It will cost you even more money to not have one at all.

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