As an estate planning attorney, I’m often asked about what my thoughts are about “do it yourself’ wills and trusts?” My
answer is always the same ... “Assuming your estate planning needs are exactly the same as the person the do-it-yourself
(DIY) will or trust was originally copied from, that DIY will or trust might work for you.” The problem is that in 25 years
of creating estate plans for 100’s of individuals, couples and families, I’ve never had two estates that were the same. You
hope a DIY will or trust will result in a legal estate plan, however, best case scenario is that it might only achieve 75%
of what an estate planning legal professional drafted will or trust aims to achieve. Why worry?
There is no need to worry if you have your estate plan in order and done correctly. I find that most people do a will or trust because they care deeply about what’s going to happen to their husbands/wives, children, grandchildren, etc. when they pass away. Everyone dies (usually unexpectedly and too soon) and more than 70% of us have not prepared for their families to deal with this event. A Will? A Trust? Estate Planning? What is the difference? What do I need? This process is very confusing. There are so many questions about this process. A do-it-yourself will or trust might be less $$ today, but those few dollars saved could cost your loved ones dearly later on.
An attorney is trained to learn and understand your unique situation, provide you with the legal strategies and tools to carry out your wishes and ultimately to make the difficult transitions easier for your loved ones when you are very ill or after your passing. An attorney will guide you through the critical decisions about whether a will or a trust is right for you, which powers of attorney for assets and health are appropriate and finally advise you how to legally create and fund your estate plan (bank accounts, businesses, personal assets, legal documents, taxes, stocks, bonds, etc).
Even if you do decide to prepare your own estate planning documents it is a good idea to have a compassionate professional review them to make sure that they are legally sufficient and relevant to your current situation (often at little or no cost). Most importantly, you will be at peace knowing that you have planned ahead for your family's future, so that their worries during their time of bereavement will be minimal.
“Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning,” San Pedro Today, Sept. 2012, pg. 34
“But I thought an estate plan was supposed to be good forever.” This would be a correct statement (for a Twinky) but the truth is that “the only certainty is change.” Even the very best estate plan* can only be based on that person’s situation as it was when the plan was created. Aside from changes you make because “you’ve changed your mind” (perfectly acceptable), an estate plan is not a crystal ball and as things change both inside and outside your life (see examples below), the original estate plan is likely to become outdated or unworkable. An outdated/unworkable plan will not achieve the results you intend. Updating your estate plan periodically is the only way to avoid this problem.
What kind of life changes are we normally talking about? A non-exhaustive list would include: marriage, divorce, a death in the family, the birth of a child or grandchild, a child’s 18th birthday, health problems, moving to a new state, starting a new business, closing an existing business, new financial success/failure. Sometimes events occur, not within your life, but perhaps in your spouse's, child’s or grandchild’s lives that can necessitate changes to your estate plan. And finally (but certainly not least), decisions being made in Sacramento or Washington DC can and will have an enormous impact on pre-existing estate plans.
The good news is that updating your estate plan is usually much simpler than it was to create your estate plan in the first place. Updating requires your sitting down with your estate planning professional (an attorney we hope) and bringing them up to date on the changes to your life (and lives). An experienced attorney will walk you through the important areas to talk about to make sure that your plan is properly adjusted/modified (if needed) to achieve your current goals. While it’s not critical that your estate plan be updated every year, a professional review every 3 to 5 years would be appropriate even without any significant events having transpired. In the wake of an important event, it’s probably best to at least call your estate planning attorney (after things settle down) and ask him/her about whether estate changes are in order.
While estate planning is to at least some degree complicated, the estate planning professional is the best person to lead you through the process and provide you with clear information to make the best decisions. Cost is certainly a factor, and many San Pedro estate planning attorneys are happy to provide free consultations (less happy attorney) or at least discounts (more happy attorney) for estate plan reviews. A final thought: An estate plan represents a significant financial investment and it makes little sense to let that investment become less useful/valuable because it was too much trouble to update it. Protect your investment and protect the reasons you invested in an estate plan in the first place … your family’s welfare.
*An estate plan properly consists not only of a Will (good) or Trust (better) but also should include a Durable Power of Attorney (estate and person), a Health Directive, a Nomination of Conservator and Nomination of Guardian (if minor children).