Websites giving you information and assistance with drafting your own estate planning documents are readily available to everyone with a computer and an internet connection. So why go through the expense of hiring an experienced estate planning attorney?
When you hire an attorney, you are paying for and getting the benefit of your attorney’s years of estate planning experience. Your attorney will evaluate your situation and your goals, and give you the best options for achieving those goals. These options often include documents or strategies that clients would not have otherwise discovered on their own. You will also be assured that the documents you and your attorney put into place will comply with the law and be legally valid instruments.
This brings us to the most compelling reason for working with an estate planning attorney: if you make a mistake, you won’t know until it’s too late. An example of this from my practice involved a woman I will call Ms. Smith. Ms. Smith consulted with me about the best way to avoid probate and leave everything she owned to her niece when she passed. We discussed the options, but I did not hear back from her to prepare any documents.
Years later, I received a distraught call from Ms. Smith’s niece. Before passing away, Ms. Smith had prepared her own trust which left everything to her niece. Unfortunately for the niece, Ms. Smith failed to transfer stock worth over $200,000.00 into her trust before she died. This stock was now subject to probate administration and since Ms. Smith had not prepared a will, the stock would be distributed and shared between all of Ms. Smith’s heirs. This failure in execution caused the niece to expend considerable time and money unsuccessfully attempting to have the stock transferred into her aunt’s trust after the fact. Based on what Ms. Smith said to me during our office consultation, this is not the result she wanted to achieve.
A similar situation involving the use of an “E-Z Legal Form” will arose in Florida in the case of Aldrich v. Basile (March 27, 2014), Florida Supreme Court, Case no. SC11-2147. In a concurring opinion, Florida Supreme Court Justice J. Parienta noted:
“While I appreciate that there are many individuals in this state who might have difficulty affording a lawyer, this case does remind me of the old adage “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” Obviously, the cost of drafting a will through the use of a pre-printed form is likely substantially lower than the cost of hiring a knowledgeable lawyer. However, as illustrated by this case, the ultimate cost of utilizing such a form to draft one’s will has the potential to far surpass the cost of hiring a lawyer at the outset. In a case such as this, which involved a substantial sum of money, the time, effort, and expense of extensive litigation undertaken in order to prove a testator’s true intent after the testator’s death can necessitate the expenditure of much more substantial amounts in attorney’s fees than was avoided during the testator’s life by the use of a pre-printed form.
I therefore take this opportunity to highlight a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance. As this case illustrates, that decision can ultimately result in the frustration of the testator’s intent, in addition to the payment of extensive attorney’s fees—the precise results the testator sought to avoid in the first place.”
If you have the time and inclination to sort through the relevant statutes, court rules and case law, you may be able to successfully prepare your own estate planning documents and avoid such situations. While it may seem using a service such as Legal Zoom would relieve you of the burden of doing your own legal due diligence, be sure to read their disclaimer before deciding whether this is the case. Before placing your trust in a one-size-fits-all solution, consider the drawbacks and difficulties your intended beneficiaries will endure if your plan fails.