Do-It-Yourself, or “DIY,” is all the rage these days. A simple Google search will reveal hundreds of step-by-step guides for any DIY project you can imagine, from something simple like painting a picture or learning to change the oil in your car to major home improvement projects.
While in theory the ability to DIY almost any project or task is great, in practice there are some things better left to a professional, like your estate planning documents.
There is no law that says you have to use a qualified estate planning attorney to draft your documents. Many people believe that drafting an estate planning document is “simple” and “easy,” and they would rather have “cheap” and “quick” documents than go through the process of hiring an attorney.
But ask yourself these questions:
If you needed a root canal, would you do it yourself by following a YouTube video? No. You would go see a dentist because you would want a professional to tend to your teeth, and ensure you didn’t damage your mouth.
If you needed your appendix removed, would you do it yourself? No. You would go to a doctor because you would want a professional to tend to your medical needs, and ensure you didn’t damage your body.
So, why then do people risk damaging their estates by drafting their own documents? When you do not seek qualified advice and assistance from an estate planning attorney, you put your entire estate at risk.
• A common mistake people make with DIY estate planning documents is neglecting to verify the formatting and execution requirements for their estate planning documents. Every state has different rules and requirements surrounding number and type of witnesses, if a notary is required, attestation clauses, etc. Those cheap DIY documents are more than likely a set template that doesn’t consider any nuisances in a specific state’s rules.
• Legislative developments, and changing estate and tax laws impact your estate planning documents. DIY websites do not offer any form of legal or tax advice, and their websites are full of disclaimers stating such. Plus, that DIY website is not going to update you when there is any form of changes in the estate or tax laws.
• DIY documents are usually one-size-fits-all documents, meaning your DIY document is only going to address the most basic components of an estate plan, and that is it. DIY documents are not going to give you sound legal advice regarding any complex issue that might be affecting your estate such as disinheriting a child, blended family issues, or establishing separate trusts for children.
• Incorrect terminology is a major issue with DIY. Creating your own documents is not as simple as inputting well-known terms into a box, and hitting “enter.” In today’s society, with blended families being the norm, the way you define familial relationships is different from the legal definition of family members. This is especially true in terms of the classification of stepchildren.
• Errors in documents can render them invalid. DIY documents usually seem fine until they need to be used. Then the issues become obvious, and the results could be detrimental. DIY websites are not responsible for validating your document’s usability. They simply provide a vehicle for you to create any given document.
The list of pitfalls is far more numerous than the five listed above. Whether the list has five or five thousand pitfalls, the takeaway is the same. DIY estate planning documents are never a good idea.
Do not leave your estate to chance and roll the dice with a DIY document. Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney about your estate plan.
Rebekah Thompson is an associate attorney with Elder Law & Estate Planning Center. hiltonheadelderlaw.com