Can I Do My Estate Planning Myself?

I get a lot of calls from people asking me if the estate plan they are completing online (or more often, have already completed), is adequate. They want to know if the so-called "Do It Yourself" plan will hold up. My answer starts with my standard reply..."it depends."

In general, as an attorney, I am obviously not a fan of the do-it-yourself trust plan. I went through years of schooling, testing, and lawyering to understand the nuances of the law in order to help people use it. When someone tells me they are covered because they "googled" it, a part of me dies inside. Don't get my wrong, googling is one of my favorite pastimes, but that doesn't mean I rely on it for important matters. I use it to gather knowledge, mostly so that I have a head start in understanding the terminology that other professionals use (so I can at least appear to understand half of what they are talking about). I love it when clients have gathered information before coming to see me because I feel like I can often provide a more understandable explanation. But people tell me they don't need a lawyer because they can do it themselves, that's a different matter. 

It's the same thing as a doctor telling you that you should forgo a trip to the office and just head to WebMD to diagnose yourself. Or a CPA saying, "No, they're just taxes. You can probably do it yourself." Or a contractor assuring you that a house you build yourself will likely stay standing and pass all inspections (which is only the case if you are this amazing woman... WomanBuildsHouse).

An estate plan follows the same logic. There are very simple, straightforward situations where a "Do-It-Yourself" plan may actually be sufficient. If you have very few, basic assets and no complications - and most importantly, no one likely to contest it - you'll probably be fine. However, you have to be prepared for those pretty big IFs.

Let's refer to my other examples. If you get a scratch on your arm and it looks like a normal scratch - minimal bleeding, starts to clear up the next day, no signs of a problem - it's a safe bet to self-diagnose. (I hope so anyways since I do that at least 3 times a week with my own kids). But, if you fall and land on your arm and it hurts really bad, has a lot of swelling, is turning colors, and you think you might have lost some feeling in your fingers...that's a different story. You are welcome to self-diagnose but you have to be prepared to have major complications down the road. 

The same goes with taxes. There are a lot of people that do their own taxes - some completely on their own and some with the assistance of do-it-yourself programs. For quite a few people, that really works. I'll admit that for years I did the same thing. But, the minute your situation gets complicated, you have to ask yourself whether you are willing to get a visit from the IRS?

An estate plan follows the same rules. And you have to remember the old saying - "you get what you pay for." So, if you go online and pay a minimal cost for a minimal plan, you have to be prepared to get the minimum result. However, that doesn't mean you have to empty your pockets either. There are certainly, in my opinion, some well-overpriced plans. The key is to get a good, solid estate plan that is based on your situation, taking in to account the key ingredients that are important to you. If you have children, you may want a plan that focuses on protecting them protecting your assets, and maybe even protecting your assets from them to some extent. If you don't have kids, you have very different priorities. To that effect, it's hard to believe that a generic one-for-all trust plan would accommodate such different perspectives. 

Most importantly is that fact that you often don't know whether an estate plan will be effective until it actually needs to be effective. And at that point, it's too late to fix it. If you're looking to set up your estate plan, give yourself some piece of mind and at least talk to a professional who knows the ins and outs of the law. 

There is a saying by a prominent federal judge well-versed in tax law that is fairly well-known in the estate planning and tax world of lawyers, and very nicely ties together this topic with my examples. "After 50 years of practice, I would no more have the audacity to formulate my own tax return than I would engage in open heart surgery." Judge Simon H. Rifkind, Are We Asking Too Much of Our Courts?, 15 Judge's J. 43 (1976).