Do Not Try This At Home (unless You Absolutely Must!): Wills, Trusts, And Estate Planning
If you are one of the millions of people who have already purchased an estate planning document, such as a living trust or will, from an online template document mill service (i.e. Rocket Lawyer, Legal Zoom, etc.), you may want to speak with a licensed estate planning attorney in your state to get a second opinion.
In this Digital Age, you can find do-it-yourself (DIY) online manuals and so-called time-saving “hacks” and “solutions” everywhere. There are online purveyors for nearly every task imaginable, including everything from car maintenance to cooking, and incorporation to dentistry. All promising to make your life easier, saving you time and money—or so they say. With some tasks, there is not much risk in trying out the DIY approach. But we can all agree that certain tasks should probably never be considered as DIY.
Brain Surgery for Dummies? No thank you!
Obviously, estate planning is not brain surgery—but neither is it the same as cooking or flower arranging. If you wish to plan your own estate in the best way possible, you should have a dynamic, up-to-date, and jurisdictionally appropriate knowledge of many interwoven legal concepts and issues, as well as, a fundamental grasp on how all of the various issues and concepts apply to your particular circumstances and needs.
To design and draft an enforceable living trust or will best-suited for you, taking into account your particular family structure, asset profile, jurisdiction, and forward-looking financial considerations—this is no small undertaking. It’s not something that can be accomplished by simply pulling a one-size-fits-all legal document off the online “rack”—not without taking on major risks that risk causing more harm to you and your family than had you had no estate plan whatsoever.
Why? It goes without saying that for a legal document to be marketed and sold for use by anyone, it cannot be tailored for anyone in particular.
To be remotely useful for more than just a very few people, a template legal document must inherently be designed to comport with the “lowest common denominator,” so to speak, as to each legal issue found within the document. And for some important legal issues where there cannot inherently be any lowest common denominator to behold, these document mill services will often just completely ignore the legal issue altogether, thus providing as much protection as if the person had no plan whatsoever.
If you want your estate plan to do any of the following: keep you out of probate, provide for your heirs, avoid or mitigate death taxes, maintain confidentiality, protect you and/or your spouse in cases of incapacity, care for your children, or firewall your assets from lawsuits and creditors, then it’s a safe bet that your average online template document will be, at best, inadequate to some degree.
And if perhaps you need even more from your estate plan—perhaps you may need a special needs trust for a child with special needs considerations, or say perhaps you are remarried with kids from a prior marriage in a so-called “blended” family situation, or maybe you want to make sure your kids go to college even if you aren’t around when the time comes—do you really think the generic template offered by a document mill is going to serve you or your family well?
Regrettably, this doesn’t stop online purveyors of DIY wills and trusts from making hundreds of millions of dollars each year selling inexpensive “fill-in” forms to make it all seem so easy and wonderful. Unfortunately, it’s often ends up being a mirage. Sadly, these “solutions” can often have disastrous results.
What’s The Worst That Could Happen?
A poorly designed plan can:
- Tie your estate up in probate court—for years;
- Force an undesirable division of your assets;
- Cause disputes amongst your remaining heirs;
- Cause your assets to be drained for unnecessary fees and costs (such as avoidable and costly probate and executor fees!);
- Be deemed to be legally invalid;
- Fail to take maximize federal (and/or state) estate tax exemptions and expose your estate to otherwise avoidable estate taxes;
- In some cases, do more damage than having no plan at all; and
- So much more…
If your goal is to have a plan that protects you, protects your family, and/or protects your assets, then speak with a professional, licensed, estate planning attorney in your local jurisdiction. If you’ve already purchased an online plan, a qualified licensed attorney should be able to review it for you and provide you with a general opinion. If you don’t have a plan yet, they should also be able to tell you what kind of plan is right for you.
You might think your template trust or will is all you need. And perhaps it is, in your case. But unless you have no other choice that to use a template document service, why take such a risk when it comes to matters so important? Will it really end up saving you time or money in the long run?
Bobby Kouretchian is the managing partner at Koza Law Group APC, located in Carlsbad, California. Mr. Kouretchian is a licensed estate planning and business attorney with over 18 years of experience. If you have any questions, he can be reached at 760-487-8330.