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There will be many projects this spring where you (or even a not-so-crafty attorney like myself) may be compelled to try and DIY (Do-It-Yourself)... Staining the deck? No problem. Replacing the garbage disposal? Piece of cake! And how hard could it really be to install a Koi pond anyway? I've never tried it, but surely there's a YouTube video for that, right?
Sure, doing it yourself can be very gratifying and, yes, it might even save you money on occasion. However, there is one project that you should never take on alone: drafting your own will or trust.
DIY Estate Planning Services
In a time where we can buy pretty much anything online, and commercials boast all sorts of "How To" products aimed at making we consumers feel invincible, it's important to remember that when it comes to legal documents, if it seems too good (a.k.a. simple or cheap) to be true, it most certainly is.
From LegalZoom to Suze Orman, there is no shortage of companies and products promising hassle-free, "customizable" wills "at a fraction of the cost of an estate planning attorney." Yes, I do charge more than $19.99 to draft wills for my clients. Here's why:
Countless problems can arise when using online wills and trusts services. Here are just a few:
Laws - What good is estate planning software you purchased back in 2020 if the laws change in 2022? Estate laws (whether Federal or State) are not written in stone. They change, they expire, and sometimes go into effect retroactively! Despite not passing it in 2021, the Biden administration is still determined to overhaul the Federal tax code. Inevitably, these changes will greatly impact estate planning. My job as a professional is to stay on top of these changes and make sure that your estate planning documents reflect them for the benefit of you and your beneficiaries!
State-Specific Laws – Another risk factor with online/DIY legal services is that they may not account for specific-state laws. For example, Maryland's estate and inheritance tax laws are not the same as neighboring Washington, D.C., and Virginia. Some states allow handwritten wills; others do not. An estate plan drafted for a couple in California should be entirely different than one prepared for a couple in Maryland. An online/DIY service that produces a standard Will or Trust for anyone in the country can easily result in additional taxes, expenses, and hassles. Only a skilled estate planning attorney, well versed in the nuances of estate and tax laws in the state in which you reside, can ensure that your assets are protected and that your wishes are honored.
Plain Meaning Rule – Words Matter. Every. Single. One. The plain meaning rule, which instructs courts to look only at the plain meaning of words contained in the will, underscores the importance of obtaining professional advice. A simple typo - an incorrect word or clause - can dramatically transform the legality and meaning of the will, negating the very purpose of its creation.
Trusts - Trusts are often used as a means of avoiding probate and shielding against hefty estate taxes. There are many kinds of trusts in estate planning - revocable, irrevocable, discretionary, spendthrifts, marital, special needs, and testamentary trusts, to name a few. Only an experienced attorney has the experience and understanding to advise on the most appropriate and effective one for your unique estate. Online and other DIY estate planning services are not equipped to provide you with advice or to determine which type of trust is advisable for your unique situation.
The Miscellaneous – There are many other potential problems with DIY estate planning tools. Such services cannot account for the plethora of related financial, tax, and personal issues that should be identified and thoroughly considered. For example, an adult child who has a spending problem, one who has marriage difficulties, or one who may have a creditor problem or lawsuit in the future. In addition, they don't address the critically important issue of regular review and maintenance of your estate documents throughout your lifetime
The Bottom Line?
A home improvement project is one thing, but don't take a chance playing a lawyer for a day. Any perceived savings will almost assuredly be wiped out by negligence and, by then, it may be too late!