Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning – The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

America is a nation of do-it-yourselfers, but building a deck and creating a legally valid estate plan are two entirely different things – and a less-than-perfect deck won’t devastate your family’s financial future or the relationships among the people you care about most.

The prevalence of online legal services has led many people to believe that they can create legal documents cheaply and those documents will be just as effective as if they had visited an estate planning attorney.   The majority of the time this is wrong.

The Good

I am slightly tempted to leave this section blank.  But in all seriousness, DIY is very tempting to a lot of people so here  are a few of the perceived goods:

Inexpensive – a lot of individuals interested in doing estate planning think that all they need is a “simple will” and have sticker shock after speaking with an attorney or law firm over the cost of a complete estate plan.   While going it alone with a book or a form may save you money now, it likely will cost you and your loves ones more in the future.

Time Savings/Flexibility – Do-it-yourself estate planning can be done on your own time schedule.  That much is true.  But to do it right, you will need to spend your evenings, weekends or other free time educating yourself about the law and the available options so you can make the right choices or the documents you complete might not be doing what you think they do.  Remember attorneys spend 3 years after college studying the law and then, in Colorado, 45 hours (minimum) of continuing legal education every 3 years.  That doesn’t even include their own on the job training.

As demonstrated by a recent case in Florida highlighted by the ABA Journal, what you save today may cost your heirs or beneficiaries much, much more later.

Why DIY Estate Planning is a Bad Idea 

No legal advice – Online sites offering “estate plans” are little more than document mills that churn out the same generic forms over and over.  They are not attorneys and cannot advise or warn you if you make a mistake. Plus, who will be there for your family when something happens to you if you’ve used an online document drafting service?  Think your family doesn’t need an advisor to support them when you are gone?  Or incapacitated? Think again.

Consider this: Erica’s father was killed in a motorcycle accident. Dad didn’t leave much behind, but he did leave an estate plan prepared by a trusted family attorney.  Had the family attorney not been there for Erica and her brother, they would have taken what dad did leave and drowned their sorrows in a European backpacking trip.  Thanks to this family attorney, though, Erica and her brother now have a healthy trust fund set up for them for life with the proceeds of a successful wrongful death case.

Leaving it to your family to know what to do after you’re gone is a big mistake for the people you love.

One size doesn’t fit all – your family is different from everyone else’s family.  Just like every state has different inheritance laws, every family has different situations.  An online form will not help you protect child or relative with special needs, or protect a child’s inheritance from creditors or a nasty divorce.  An online form cannot tell you how to protect assets from taxes or help you achieve your financial or charitable goals.

And, an online form cannot keep your family out of conflict during a time of grief.  Even if you don’t have a lot of assets to leave, whatever you do have will be subject to distribution between the people you care most about.  Some of the biggest disagreements we’ve seen after death, aren’t about loads of money, but about the little things, like burial wishes, and who was promised grandma’s wedding ring, dad’s hunting knife or the heirloom teapot, and those little things aren’t going to be dealt with well with form documents.

Save now, pay later – you may think you are saving money by using an online service to create your will or trust, but it is impossible to make a fair comparison since the services provided are entirely different.

An estate planning attorney creates an entire plan tailored to your individual needs in legal documents that will stand up in court, and advises you on ways to cut taxes now as well as in the future, save for retirement and long-term care and truly protect your unique wishes.  No online service does that.

In addition, your trusted advisor is going to be there for your family when you cannot be. The people you love will need someone to turn to after you are gone.  Do you want them to be stuck with figuring out who that should be during their time of grief? Or do you want to leave behind the gift of having taken care of things well during your lifetime and a trusted advisor to hold their hand when you no longer can?

We invite you to take advantage of our specialized legal services for families with a Family Wealth Planning Session.  Call our office today at 720-248-7621 to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk about designing an estate plan that fits the needs of you and your family.