I recently came across a New York Times article that reminded me of an all too common experience I encounter in my estate planning practice. In the article author Ron Lieber recounts his experiment with 4 different Do-It-Yourself will drafting software programs and the outcome. Although Lieber goes through the pros and cons of each software program, his final conclusion is that while these programs may make you feel safe, they simply can’t give you the level of protection a trained attorney can—and in some cases these programs actually do more harm than good.
Unfortunately, I am often the bearer of this kind of bad news after the damage is done. Lawyers consulted after a death cannot undo the damage done by an inadequate or incomplete estate plan, we can only do the necessary work to administer the estate and transfer the assets, hopefully, but not always, to the intended loved ones. Unlike writing on a blank slate if nothing had been done, first, I must erase the unintelligible mess before I can begin. This is generally expensive, meaning that the self help remedy defeats its own purpose by becoming more expensive than had the client consulted a competent lawyer in the first place.
The Attorney General of the state of Washington agrees with me. In an announcement explaining the terms of a recent settlement with LegalZoom, the Attorney General expressed concern that the advertising and service offered was misleading because although it provided forms, it couldn’t provide the advice necessary for a consumer to determine if the forms were being completed properly. The enforcement of its unauthorized practice of law rules is a major victory for unwary consumers and a lesson for us all.
Something happening in Washington may seem far away from our lives here in Arizona, but this is a serious issue that affects anybody considering an estate plan—or legal work of any kind! I strongly urge you to look closer at the NYT’s article at the top of this post and then the announcement from the State of Washington.
It all comes back to the fact that you simply don’t know what you don’t know. Finding professional advisors whom you trust to help you determine your intent, to spend the time it takes to know you and your family, and to design an estate plan that will be efficient in terms of cost and effectiveness is of the utmost importance.
In the midst of designing an extraordinarily complex plan recently, I delivered drafts for review of multiple trusts and documents to the clients, one of whom honestly asked if they needed to hire someone to read and explain the words to them. In the same week, a prospective probate client delivered a perfectly organized file consisting of 30 or more documents that had been prepared by a combination of document preparers and online do-it-yourself packages, all of which looked very good and which had taken a very long time to create and organize. Unfortunately, all of those documents individually (and certainly the group as a whole) failed to achieve any of the primary purposes – it did not avoid a probate process, it did not transfer the assets to the intended persons, and it will not avoid legal fees.
What do these 2 seemingly disparate examples have in common? Without knowing what they didn’t know, the client and the prospect were unlikely to make the right decision without relying on the expertise of a competent professional.
I believe estate planning is an important partnership. If you teach me about your family, your finances, and your hopes, dreams, aspirations, and intentions, then I will teach you the law that must be applied to achieve the result you want to obtain.
The rest is just hard work. Legal documents are tools to achieve a result. Anyone can buy a hammer and saw at the local hardware store, but not everyone can build the house they want to live in. You have spent a lifetime acquiring knowledge and skills and applying your talents to build a life; do you really want to take a chance not knowing what you don’t know?
Estate taxes, gifting, revocable and irrevocable trusts, heirs and beneficiaries, trustees and executors, estates, probate, Last Will and Testaments, power of attorneys, health care directives, and more are the language and stock in trade of good estate planning; using them correctly is difficult. EVERY case is “fact specific” which means that your circumstances and intentions dictate how the resulting documents are drafted. Form documents are like a broken clock that is right only twice a day. Your family may pay a terrible price for the false sense of security of form documents.
Laws and common practice are complex and ever changing. If you want an estate plan that works, call me.