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The Dangers of DIY Estate Planning

This is a true story about a client of our firm who became very sick and wanted to make some changes to her estate plan. Instead of asking an attorney to draft an amendment to her trust, she decided to simply write her own amendment on some Teddy Bear stationary.

Shortly thereafter, she passed away, and the time came to administer her trust. The ambiguity of the handwritten amendment necessitated the involvement of the Probate Court to help interpret the deceased client’s intentions with regards to her estate. Ultimately, the confusion cost the client’s estate an additional $15,000.

This real-life example illustrates well why you should never attempt to create or amend your own estate planning documents.

In recent years, websites such as NOLO and LegalZoom have popped up offering do-it-yourself estate planning. While seemingly convenient, these websites take no responsibility for their documents if they fail to work when you pass away. A good estate planning law firm, on the other hand, takes full responsibility for the documents they draft and will be there to help should any issues arise during the trust administration.

Some clients also type up estate planning changes and get that document notarized, thinking this makes the document legally binding. A notary’s job is to verify that you proved your identity and that they saw you sign the document, but a notary stamp in no way validates a document’s contents. Attempting to write your own estate plan can create a myriad of problems for the heirs left behind.

Some of the common problems that result from do-it-yourself estate plans:

-Having to prove to a Court that a will was executed with the necessary legal formalities

-Failing to take advantage of appropriate tax planning

-Giving gifts inappropriately (such as to minor children or to beneficiaries with drug problems or beneficiaries who are on governmental assistance, causing them to lose their benefits).

While clients may hope to save a few hundred dollars by doing their own estate planning documents, they often fail to realize that the confusion and legal ambiguity created by this decision can and does result in thousands of dollars of litigation later on.

Estate Planning law is complex and specialized enough that even most attorneys who don’t specialize in this field seek assistance from a qualified estate planning firm when creating their estate plan. If you would like to make changes to your estate plan, be sure to seek the counsel of a qualified estate planning attorney.

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