Do-it-Yourself Estate Plans: Hazards to Avoid

Do-it-yourself estate plans, wills, and other legal documents are available across the Internet.  Such products are tempting and seemingly convenient, but using them could create serious and expensive legal problems for your heirs.

Online do-it-yourself estate plans may appear to offer a cost-effective and easy alternative to visiting a qualified estate planning attorney or elder law attorney. But are the risks worth the convenience and anticipated savings?

Assessing Your Estate Planning Needs

The complexity of your estate is not always determined by the amount of wealth you have. Below are a few questions to ask yourself when determining the complexity of your estate. If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” a do-it-yourself estate plan may be adequate for you.

1. Do I own real estate?

2. Do I own property of value, such as jewelry, vehicles, equipment, livestock, etc.

3. Do I own savings or investments, such as stocks, or retirement accounts?

4. How is my family structured? For example, do I have children from a previous marriage? Do I have a child with special needs?

If the answer to ANY of these questions is “yes,” you will likely need a lawyer to determine whether or not your estate planning needs are simple or more complex. If they are not simple, you should not try to create an estate plan without the help of an attorney. Additional questions to explore include the following: Do I have an estate that is taxable under state or federal law? Do I own significant amounts of tax-deferred retirement plans? Do I know how to fund a revocable trust? Is there anything about my estate that is unusual? A qualified estate planning attorney will walk you through these questions to determine the level of your estate planning needs. If you have any questions about your estate, you should seek out a professional. Learn more in our blog, Do I Have an Estate?

Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Hazards to Avoid

The following are some examples of what can happen if you try to create an estate plan without the help of an attorney.

Online Will Never Updated

Using an online generic will, a Florida woman listed several possessions and bank accounts that she intended to go to her brother. After writing the will, the woman inherited additional money and property. However, the woman did not have a “residuary clause” in the original will to say where additional assets should go, and she never revised the will to account for this new property. After she died, her brother argued that he should be entitled to her entire estate, but her nieces argued the estate should pass intestate (i.e., under the laws of her state, as if she had died without a will). The court ruled that because the will had no residuary clause or general bequests that could include the inherited property, the property acquired after her was prepared would pass under Florida’s laws of intestacy. This meant that the brother was not the sole beneficiary. Aldrich v. Basile (Fla., No. SC11-2147, March 27, 2014)

Surviving Spouse Nearly Left Homeless by Do-It-Yourself Will

A Massachusetts man used a pre-packaged will form to leave his home to his wife and his four grown children, the product of an earlier marriage. The problem was that the will didn’t give the wife the option to remain in the house for the rest of her life.  A court case ensued because the children, who possessed the majority interest in the property, could have legally forced the wife to move.  

No Residuary Clause in DIY Will

A Pennsylvania man wanted his estate to go to only two of his five children. He wrote his own will, giving his pickup truck to his daughter and his summer house to his son. He also wrote in the will that he was intentionally leaving his other three children out of his will. The problem was that the man did not specify what to do with the remainder of his estate. He died leaving an estate of $217,000. While he probably intended for that money to go to the two children he didn’t disinherit, because the will had no residuary clause, the remainder of the man’s estate passed under the state law that specifies who inherits when there is no will. This meant that the estate was divided between all five children. (In Re: Estate of George Zeevering, No. 316-2012, Nov. 7, 2012)

Online Estate Plan Found Not Legally Binding

The company LegalZoom, one of the most prominent sellers of do-it-yourself wills and other estate planning documents, settled a class-action lawsuit brought by an unhappy customer in California. A niece helped her uncle prepare a will and trust using LegalZoom. The niece believed that the documents they created would be legally binding. She also believed that if they encountered any problems, the company’s customer service department would resolve them. The niece could not transfer any of her uncle’s assets into the trust because the financial institutions that held his money refused to accept the LegalZoom documents as valid. She had to hire an estate planning attorney to fix the problems. In that process, her attorney also discovered that the will LegalZoom created had not been properly witnessed. All this cost the uncle’s estate thousands of dollars. (Webster v. LegalZoom Inc., No. BC438637, Oct. 1, 2014)

The unfortunate irony is that do-it-yourself estate plans and boilerplate wills in these cases not only frustrated the decedents’ testamentary intent, but ultimately cost their estates far more than a simple consultation with an estate planning or elder law attorney would have. 

The experienced attorneys here at Elville and Associates are here to guide you through your planning.  Most initial consultations are complimentary to help create a roadmap for how you may want to proceed with your planning.  It is our mission to create solutions to our clients’ needs through counseling, education, and the use of superior legal-technical knowledge.  

Do-it-yourself wills and estate plans leave your legacy to chance.  Don’t let that happen. Contact Legal Administrator Mary Guay Kramer at 443-741-3635 or at mary@elvilleassociates.com to schedule your appointment with Elville and Associates to begin your planning or, just as important, have outdated documents revisited.  

Elville and Associates – Planning for Life, Planning for Legacies.

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