Question: Is DIY estate planning a good idea?

If you think performing your own surgery or doing your own dental work is a good idea, then maybe it is. Most educated consumers realize it’s not.

With the number of online and do it yourself (DIY) document preparers continuing to grow, some people may be wondering if they could or should do their estate planning themselves. These online document preparers use very seductive advertising saying that attorneys use similar forms, that using the online document preparers is significantly cheaper than hiring an attorney, and that many of the document preparer’s documents are created by attorneys. In addition, most people (often incorrectly) think their estates are not complicated, and some think they are just as smart as (or smarter than) professionals.

Any good estate planning attorney knows that DIY estate planning can be dangerous. While completing the forms may seem easy and straightforward, a single mistake or omission can have far reaching complications that only come to light after the person has died. In fact, many people actually fill out the forms incorrectly. Since that person isn’t around explain his or her intentions, the heirs could end up disappointed and confused, and could end up paying much more in attorneys’ fees to try to sort things out after the fact than it would have cost to hire an attorney to prepare the estate plan in the first place.

Those thinking about the do it yourself route should consider the following:

  • Legal Expertise: Experienced estate planning attorneys have the technical expertise to draft your estate planning documents correctly. While they may use pre-drafted forms to start from, they know what to change and more importantly how to change it to make your plan work the way you want. Experienced estate planning attorneys also understand the technical terms and legal requirements in your state. Many DIY forms say “valid in all 50 states”. This is not possible (even though LegalZoom claims that it’s wills are designed to meet the legal requirements of all 50 U.S. states!). Laws vary greatly from state to state, and a DIY program or kit may not tell you everything you need to know to prevent your plan from being thrown out by the court.
  • Counseling: Attorneys are called “counselors” for a reason. Most estate planning attorneys have counseled numerous families and have seen the results of proper and improper planning. An experienced estate planning attorney can guide you on important decisions, including naming the guardian of your minor children; how to provide for a child or elderly parent who has special needs without interrupting valuable government benefits; how to provide for your children fairly (which may not be equally); and how you can protect an inheritance from creditors and irresponsible spending.
  • Explanation of Intentions: If there is any confusion about what your intentions were after you are gone, the attorney who counseled you will be able to help explain them. This unbiased interpretation from someone who does not stand to benefit from your estate can help to avoid costly litigation by your beneficiaries and even maintain the validity of your documents.
  • Coordination of Assets: A last will and testament only controls assets that are titled in your name. You probably have other assets that are controlled by a contract, joint ownership and/or beneficiary designations; these include IRAs, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts, real estate and life insurance. A will does not control these assets. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to coordinate these so that your assets are distributed the way you want to those you want to have them.
  • Tax Planning: The federal estate tax exemption has been a moving target in recent years. While it appears the 2012 $5 million exemption will stay that way for 2013, no one can be sure what will happen in the future. I looks like 2013 will be a great year to do some tax planning. Also, many states have their own death or inheritance tax, often at much lower exemptions than the federal tax. Careful professional planning is a must in order to avoid paying too much federal and/or state tax.
  • Same Sex and Other Relationships: Because laws are frequently changing and vary greatly from state to state, it is vital to have updated advice from a competent professional. Without proper planning, many rights may be limited or non-existant for unmarried cohabitants. Providing for your pets may also be very important to you. Under Arizona law, same sex couples and unmarried couples are not treated kindly. While many people hope that the laws will catch up to today’s society, same sex and unmarried couples must be proactive to ensure that their loved ones are appropriately cared for in the future. Powers of attorney are also important for these couples so ensure that the right people are making the critical decisions.
  • Complexity and Cost: Most people think their estate planning will be simple. Once people start thinking about their plan, most of them discover that they do need some personalized planning…and unfortunately may not know how to do it without the guidance and counseling of an experienced estate planning attorney. It is far better to spend a little more now and make sure your plan will work the way it is supposed to work instead of trying to save a few dollars and have things turn out badly later. At that point, you won’t be around then to straighten things out. Don’t you think you owe it to those you love to do this the right way?

Here are some things all of us can do to help keep costs down:

  • Become educated consumers. The more we learn and understand about estate planning, the less time an attorney will need to spend educating us as to the process.
  • Prepare a list of assets and liabilities; gather relevant documents (deeds, titles, beneficiary designations, etc.); consider beneficiaries and any special needs they may have.
  • Shop around a bit. Ask friends and acquaintances for referrals. If costs are a concern, let the attorney know up front that you are concerned about costs; he/she may be willing to work with you to keep them as low as possible. We offer plans starting at $499 for either a single person or a couple.
  • Consider what you think you want, but be open to the attorney’s suggestions.

An attorney prepared estate plan is always the best idea. Even the online document preparers agree! Consider the disclaimer on popular online document preparer LegalZoom’s website:

LegalZoom is not a law firm and may not perform services performed by an attorney. LegalZoom and its Services are not substitutes for the advice of an attorney.

LegalZoom strives to keep its legal documents accurate, current and up-to-date. However, because the law changes rapidly, LegalZoom cannot guarantee that all of the information on the Site or Applications is completely current. The law is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and may be subject to interpretation by different courts. The law is a personal matter, and no general information or legal tool like the kind LegalZoom provides can fit every circumstance. Furthermore, the legal information contained on the Site and Applications is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. Therefore, if you need legal advice for your specific problem, or if your specific problem is too complex to be addressed by our tools, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area.

LEGALZOOM MAKES NO WARRANTY THAT: (A) THE SITE, APPLICATIONS, OR THE MATERIALS WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS; (B) THE SITE, APPLICATIONS, OR THE MATERIALS WILL BE AVAILABLE ON AN UNINTERRUPTED, TIMELY, SECURE OR ERROR-FREE BASIS; (C) THE RESULTS THAT MAY BE OBTAINED FROM THE USE OF THE SITE, APPLICATIONS, OR ANY MATERIALS OFFERED THROUGH THE SITE OR APPLICATIONS, WILL BE ACCURATE OR RELIABLE; OR (D) THE QUALITY OF ANY PRODUCTS, SERVICES, INFORMATION OR OTHER MATERIAL PURCHASED OR OBTAINED BY YOU THROUGH THE SITE, APPLICATIONS, OR IN RELIANCE ON THE MATERIALS WILL MEET YOUR EXPECTATIONS.

(emphasis supplied)

Don’t you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to ensure that your money is well spent on a quality, suitable estate plan that gives you the results you want? An experienced estate planning attorney can get you the results you want and ensure your plan will function the way it is supposed to when the time comes. It doesn’t have to be expensive either.  Call Arizona estate planning attorney at (480) 699-7992 to get started today.