The Real Life Perils of Online and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Estate Planning

With the number of online and do-it-yourself (DIY) legal providers continuing to grow and advertise heavily, you may be wondering if you could do your estate planning with the help of these forms. The advertising is seductive. Ads say, “attorneys use similar forms,” “the cost is significantly less than hiring an attorney,” and “many of these websites and kits are created by attorneys.” Most folks think their estates are not complicated and many think forms are forms – and – attorneys just charge for forms, right?

Wrong.

All estate planning attorneys know that DIY estate planning is dangerous and those same attorneys make more money cleaning up someone’s DIY mess than they charge for an estate plan that works in the first place.

  • While completing the forms may seem easy and straightforward, a single mistake or omission can have far reaching implications that only come to light after you have become incapacitated or died.
  • With you not here to explain your intentions, your heirs may end up disappointed and confused; and they could end up paying much more in legal help to sort things out after the fact than it would have cost in the first place.

The results of DIY are tragic. Good people fall for the “estate planning is just a form” and they said they have attorneys on staff.

  • But, we’ve seen folks accidentally disinherit their beloved children, pass assets outright to a drug-addicted beneficiary, and create documents that have no legal validity or don’t control their assets.
  • We’ve even seen young children with no guardians named at the mercy of the court to determine their future.

It’s sad and frustrating. DIY companies mislead good people like you to make a few bucks; the results, often chaos and pain.

7 Factors Those Contemplating the DIY Route Should Consider

  1. Legal Expertise. Experienced estate planning attorneys have the technical expertise to draft documents correctly so they are legally valid and reflect your wishes. Yes, they likely start with pre-drafted forms, but they know what language to bring in as well as what to change and how to change it to make your plan work the way you want. They also understand the technical terms and legal requirements of your state. 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 or failing to carry out your wishes.
  2. Counseling. Attorneys are called “counselors at law” for a reason. Estate planning attorneys counsel families and they have seen the results of both proper and improper planning. An experienced attorney can guide you with delicate decisions, including who should be 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.
  3. Explanation of Intentions. If there is any confusion as to what your intentions were after you are incapacitated or gone, the attorney, who counseled you, will be able to explain what you wanted. This unbiased interpretation from someone who does not stand to benefit from your plan can help avoid costly litigation by your beneficiaries, keep peace in your family, and maintain the validity of your documents.
  4. Coordination of Assets. A will only controls assets that are titled in your individual 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 estate planning attorney will know how to coordinate your assets and estate plan so that your assets are distributed as you wish.
  5. Tax Planning. The federal government and many states have their own death or inheritance tax. State taxes often kick in 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 – and probate fees.
  6. Unmarried Couples. Being married creates rights and privileges under the law. If you’re not married, you need to create contracts and documents that will protect you and your partner. Because laws are frequently changing and vary greatly from state to state, it’s vital to have updated advice from a competent estate planning attorney. Without proper planning, many rights may be limited for unmarried cohabitants. Providing for your pets may also be very important to you.
  7. Complexity and Cost. Many people think their estate planning will be simple. But the reality is, most folks discover they do need some personalized planning…and you may not know that without the guidance and counseling of an estate planning attorney. It is far better to spend a little more now and make sure your plan is created correctly than to try to save a few dollars and have things turn out badly later. You won’t be around then to straighten things out.

Often a DIY estate plan is worse than no plan at all, but don’t let that discourage you. You wouldn’t participate in DIY surgery so forget the DIY law; the lawyers who work for those companies don’t represent you and they are not your fiduciary; they represent the company for whom they work. Only a lawyer you hire individually, usually with a written engagement agreement, is your fiduciary and must always act in your best interests.

Though your first priority needs to be a plan that protects you and your family, if payment is a concern, we will work with you. We have levels of planning to fit a variety of budgets as well as payment plans. We invite you to call our office right now (229) 292-8989 to get you and your family truly protected.

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