Last week, I talked about the prevalence of the “do-it-yourself” (DIY) mentality, and I urged my readers to avoid the potential pitfalls of taking a DIY approach to divorce. Perhaps no other area of the law has seen a larger explosion of DIY attitudes than that of estate planning, or more specifically, wills and trusts. It seems you can’t watch more than an hour of primetime television these days without seeing a slick commercial for cheap, fill-in-the-blank, estate planning document services. As with other legal endeavors, proper estate planning does not lend itself well to fill-in-the-blank forms. And, while taking a DIY approach to something like incorporating your own company can be a risky proposition, the risk involved in doing so is relatively small when compared to the potentially disastrous consequences that can result from DIY estate planning. Indeed, when it comes to estate planning, you are quite literally dealing with matters of life and death, and mistakes can lead to irreversible ruin. This week, I offer 5 reasons you should consider hiring an experienced estate planning lawyer.
It’s a bad joke, perhaps, but one estate planners like to tell: “You don’t have an estate plan? That’s alright; the government has one for you.” It’s true. If you pass away without even a will in place, whatever you leave behind will almost certainly be dealt with by a judge, in probate proceedings. But a will – alone – does not avoid probate, which is defined as proving, or establishing the validity of, a will. If you have no will, or your will is determined to be invalid or insufficient, it will be up to the probate courts to decide how your estate (defined as the assets and debts you leave behind) is divided up and dealt with. In that process, your wishes may be thwarted, inasmuch as your estate may not be left to the people you had hoped. It is even possible that every asset you left behind might get gobbled up in the probate process, leaving nothing for your heirs. A competent estate planning lawyer can help you avoid probate altogether, using tools like a revocable trust to protect what you leave behind.
Planning not only for death, but also for life.
When you say, “estate planning”, to the average person, it conjures the image of a Last Will & Testament, or of a funeral, perhaps. We associate estate planning with death, and protecting your legacy after you’ve passed away is certainly an important aim of estate planning. However, estate planning encompasses much more than that, and it isn’t just for the dying. In a comprehensive estate plan, you will also take steps to protect your assets, and to declare your wishes, while you are still living. After all, there are many sorts of mishap and misadventure that can leave you unable to attend to your own affairs, even though you technically still have a pulse. Through guardianship appointments, powers of attorney, and other estate planning tools, an estate planning lawyer can ensure that you are protected for any such eventuality.
Making the hard decisions now, so your loved ones don’t have to later.
It’s difficult to think about, but, if you were in a persistent vegetative state, would you want your doctors to continue keeping you alive by providing you with artificial nutrition through a feeding tube, or would you want them to let you go? Do your loved ones know what your preference would be? The harsh reality is that, if you haven’t made this sort of decision and clearly expressed your wishes in an advance medical directive, it will be up to your family to make the decision for you, and to do so in the midst of a crisis. That is quite the burden with which to saddle your loved ones. By working with an estate planning lawyer to make these difficult decisions now, you can save your family from having to do so later on.
Your estate is likely larger and more complex than you even realize. A necessary and important part of the estate planning process involves taking inventory. Your DIY documents might simply specify that your children are to divide everything equally. But what about that jewelry box you promised your niece, or that painting that your children never really cared for, but your neighbor has always adored? Going through the estate planning process with an experienced attorney will help you get a handle on exactly what “stuff” you have, so that you can make sure your documents accurately and completely reflect your wishes.
Filling in the whole puzzle.
If pieces are missing from a jigsaw puzzle, it may be difficult, or even impossible, to discern what the image is meant to be. Likewise, if pieces are missing from an estate plan, or if the pieces that are there are inconsistent with each other, it can be difficult or impossible for your heirs to determine what your wishes truly were. And, as I discussed above, when it comes to estate planning, where there are holes to fill, those holes are almost always filled by the courts in a probate proceeding. Instead of allowing a stranger to determine what the puzzle should have looked like, hire an estate planning lawyer to make sure that none of the pieces are missing, and that the picture is already complete and unmistakable.
There are several other great reasons to hire an estate planning lawyer, and it is one of the few areas of legal expertise for which virtually everyone has a need. Comprehensive estate planning is probably less expensive than you think, and it is certainly less costly than probate. At SmartLaw, we take a personal, compassionate, and innovative approach to estate planning, a practice area which we view as a natural complement to our family law practice. Additionally, all of our estate planning packages feature upfront, flat-rate pricing. When it comes to your legacy, don’t DIY; give us a call for your free consultation instead.