Dangers of do-it-yourself estate planning
In response to COVID-19, financial services firms and online companies are offering a variety of self-made digital estate plans. These low-cost plans entice anxious families to explore these options in an effort to avoid the expense of an attorney. Not everyone has the ability to correctly prepare their own documents even with the convenience of the templates offered online. Others, who try on their own, could create problems rather than solutions. It is not easy to correctly prepare estate planning documents without the aid of an attorney, but it is easy to make significant mistakes which can be costly to correct or cause irreparable damage.
One of the most common mistakes involves the misinterpretation and misunderstanding of legal terms and their significance in legal documents. What is “issue”? What are “heirs at law”? What do “per capita” and “per stirpes” mean? Oftentimes, incorrect assumptions are made about the meaning of these words and others or they are ignored and dismissed as “legal jargon”, inadvertently leading to an estate plan contrary to the intent of the grantor or testator, such as leaving assets to unintended beneficiaries.
In like manner, the disinheritance clause and no-contest clause, while often very important, are frequently misconstrued. Additionally, in self-drafted documents, the language explaining why certain people are not included is absent, consequently increasing the chances of litigation after the grantor’s or testator’s death.
Similarly, the language used by online companies or clients themselves is often vague and unclear, resulting in unnecessary conflict and, frequently, in litigation that was intended to be avoided and could have been avoided if the estate planning documents were correctly drafted by an attorney in the first place. Likewise, a failure to tailor the estate plan in accordance with the particular state’s laws can lead to mistakes and unintended financial and personal consequences.
It is not uncommon that online or self-drafted documents fail to appreciate the various tax implications involved in a client’s estate or fail to consider all the issues associated with minor beneficiaries. Also, frequently, while changing a provision in a document, a change is implanted only in one part of the document, leaving other parts of the document impacted by this change unrevised and, subsequently, creating several probable interpretations and questions about the grantor’s or testator’s intent.
Online estate plans rarely contain all the documents that constitute a comprehensive estate planning portfolio. Similarly, it is very easy for an individual to fail to appreciate the role of each separate document and their importance and relevance in each specific case. For example, an online trust document might be missing a property schedule or the health power of attorney might not contain all of the individual’s wishes and desires.
Lastly, the online or self-execution of the estate planning documents often occurs without observing legal formalities such as notarization and the presence of competent witnesses. This absence of legal formalities consequently creates an invalid and inoperative document.
In today’s world, it is tempting to prepare an estate planning portfolio yourself or online. Be aware that by doing so, you might be creating more complications than resolutions. It is worth it to get your estate plan done right the first time by an attorney.
Natalia Vander Laan is a Minden attorney practicing estate planning, family law, and workers’ compensation.