Americans, by and large, are do-it-yourselfers. Books, websites, software programs, and even giant box stores exist solely to help ambitious Americans tackle all kinds of everyday challenges, from fixing leaky faucets to building backyard sheds. The same holds true for estate planning–there’s certainly no dearth of information for those wanting to prepare their own wills and other important documents. However, do-it-yourselfers may want to exercise a bit of caution here.
Although do-it-yourself (DIY) estate planning can cost a fraction of what attorneys charge, depending on your personal situation, this may be a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Proponents of DIY estate planning typically have two arguments:
These points are valid: For those who cannot afford to pay an attorney, DIY may be an economical alternative. For others, a poorly drafted will may be better than no will at all, especially when naming a guardian for minor children is involved. But there are several risks to DIY estate planning, including the risk that your wishes will not be carried out exactly as you intend.
Although DIY sources can typically handle the needs of simple estates, they generally are not appropriate for even the most common complexities such as children from a prior marriage, children with special needs, property that has appreciated in value resulting in capital gains, and estates that are large enough to be subject to estate taxes (typically those worth more than $5,340,000 in 2014). Also, DIY sources generally fail to take advantage of sophisticated estate planning strategies because they usually can’t account for an individual’s unique circumstances.
Further, you may make an error by failing to understand the instructions or by following the instructions incorrectly.
The result is that the documents you create could be invalid, ineffective, or contain legal language having consequences you never intended. You might not know if that is the case during your lifetime, but at your death your loved ones will find out and may suffer the lasting consequences of your mistakes.
DIY sources provide forms but not legal advice. In fact, these sources clearly state that they are not a substitute for an attorney, and that they are prohibited from providing any kind of legal advice.
Estate planning involves a lot more than producing documents. It’s impossible to know, without a legal education and years of experience, what the appropriate legal solution is to your particular situation and what planning opportunities are available. The actual documents produced are simply tools to put into effect a plan that is specifically tailored to your circumstances and goals.
Laws are not static. They constantly change because of new case law and legislation, especially when it comes to estate taxes. Attorneys keep up with these changes. DIY websites, makers of software, and other sources may not do as good a job at keeping current and up-to-date.
As previously stated, working with an attorney to create your estate planning documents can be very expensive, costing anywhere from several hundred to several thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of your estate. But these costs are minor compared to the costs and frustrations that your loved ones may experience if there are serious errors in your DIY estate plan. Many more thousands of dollars and many hours with attorneys may have to be spent to undo what was done wrong. Before embarking on a DIY estate plan, consider these risks very carefully.