Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do-It-Yourself Wills, a No-No

On September 7, 2010, Forbes  published and posted an excellent article about "Do-It-Yourself" estate planning written by an experienced business and legal writer.

Her message:  "Why am I strenuously opposed to do-it-yourself wills? There are just so many things that can go wrong -- from the wording of the document, to the required formalities for how it must be signed and witnessed before it can be valid."

In researching her article, The Case Against Do-It-Yourself Wills, Deborah L. Jacobs made inquiries through the listserv of the American College of Trust & Estate Counsel (ACTEC), collecting, from experienced specialized lawyers, their "horror" stories of self-help estate planning gone bad.  She recites some accounts in her lengthy article.

I agree with her advice.  Don't write testamentary documents -- those taking effect (and becoming irrevocable) to direct property after your death -- by yourself, without at least a review by an experienced elder law attorney.

For many years while teaching Estate Planning & Administration or Elder Law at Widener Law School, Harrisburg Campus, I directed second- and third-year law students to draft a last will, a health care directive, or a durable power of attorney as part of a graded project.  I allowed, even encouraged, use of consumer-oriented estate planning software, but mandated that all documents "work" according to the expectation of the hypothetical client.

Such highly-educated law students, who took a course and who sought a good grade, often made mistakes that an experienced practitioner would not.  Sometimes they used a wrong "form" to accomplish an end or create a relationship.  Other mistakes ranged from misspellings, omission of crucial data, internal inconsistencies in directions, disregard of non-probate designations that would control, citations to incorrect law, incomplete statements of intention or flawed dispositions (some in long-term trusts), and lack of backup plans or successor appointments.

Now, if trained law students make such mistakes, why would a consumer without training do better?

Just as those students might learn from using a self-help legal program to produce a draft of a document for discussion, a consumer could become educated.

Those easily-printed documents could be flawed, however; so the output should be reviewed by someone knowledgeable in applicable law and legal procedure.
Using a DIY will is like "pulling your own tooth with a pair of pliers instead of going to the dentist." -- Timothy E. Kalamaros, Esq., South Bend, Indiana