In recent years, there has been an explosion of do-it-yourself (DIY) websites, kits, books, and forms, many of which were created with assistance from attorneys. You may think your needs are so simple you don’t need an attorney’s help. Or maybe you just want to save money.
While you probably can do your own estate planning, consider whether you should. It may seem easy and straightforward while you are completing the forms, but simple mistakes or omissions can have far-reaching complications that will only come to light after you are gone. If you are not here to explain your intentions or correct mistakes, your loved ones could end up paying much more in legal fees than you might save by not using an attorney now.
If you are contemplating DIY estate planning, consider the following benefits of using an experienced estate planning attorney:
Legal Expertise: Experienced estate planning attorneys have the technical expertise to draft documents correctly. Yes, they may use computerized forms to work from, but they know 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 in 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.
Counseling: Attorneys are called “counselors at law” for a reason. Most estate planning attorneys have counseled many families, and they have seen the results of 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 special needs child or parent without jeopardizing government benefits; how to provide for your children fairly; how to protect an inheritance from creditors and irresponsible spending; and how to provide for a significant other if you are not married.
Assistance with Transferring Assets: You must transfer your assets (change titles) to your living trust for it to work properly. Many attorneys will transfer your home to your trust at no additional cost, and they usually have legal assistants who can transfer other assets for a small fee. If you want to save some money and transfer some assets yourself, the attorney will provide written instructions; legal assistants are usually available to answer questions and/or provide assistance.
Explanation of Intentions: If there is any confusion as to what your intentions were after you are gone, the attorney who counseled you will be able to explain them. This unbiased interpretation from someone who does not stand to benefit from your plan can help avoid costly litigation by your beneficiaries and even maintain the validity of your documents.
Coordination of Assets: You probably own your assets in a variety of ways. Some may be titled in your name. Others (real estate, IRAs, retirement benefits, life insurance, annuities) may be controlled by a contract, joint ownership and/or beneficiary designations. An experienced attorney will know how to coordinate these so that your assets are distributed the way you want.
Tax Planning: With the federal estate tax exemption so high, most people do not need federal estate tax planning. But some states have their own death or inheritance tax, often with much lower exemptions than the federal tax, and other taxes (income, capital gains, Medicare surtax, gift, and generation-skipping) are still on the table. Careful professional tax planning is a must if you have tax-deferred accounts and long-term capital gains.
Again, most people think their estate planning will be simple. But the reality is that most of us do need some personalized planning, and you may not realize that without the guidance and counseling of an experienced attorney.