Having been an estate planning attorney for over 20 years, I have had many people ask, “Can I do my own estate planning documents?” I don’t hesitate with my answer. “Yes, definitely.” And then I add, “You can also deliver your own babies – many people do – or build your own house or repair your own cars.” My point is that we generally go to others who are much more trained and experienced than us to perform certain services.
An avalanche of do-it-yourself legal forms has descended upon us lately, spun out by people anxious to make money “helping” you. The fact is that such forms can be extremely risky to use. The most popular forms are “end-of-life documents” – wills, estate planning forms, living wills or “delegation documents,” giving certain tasks to another person when you’re incapacitated or otherwise unavailable. These include powers of attorney (medical and financial) and naming a guardian for minor children.
There are some advantages to using do-it-yourself forms. You can save legal fees and can sometimes handle a matter faster than a lawyer would. Forms are usually in plain English rather than “legalese.” They can be customized by striking out irrelevant information or adding extra clauses.
However, there are many more disadvantages. The biggest pitfall is a false sense of security. It looks so simple – just pick a form, gather information and fill in the blanks. But few forms come with enough explanation to assure the user that he or she is using the instrument in the right way. And many “legal forms” are contracts, with power to bind you to a commitment you may not want. Sometimes it is just plain foolhardy to use do-it-yourself estate planning kits. It could cost far more to unravel the problems they can cause than it would to hire a good estate planning attorney in the first place. One size does not fit all, particularly in regard to estate planning.
Another reason to look beyond the do-it-yourself forms is if you own enough assets to have estate or income tax issues. Few middle class clients know whether they need tax planning or not because they don’t know what property is counted or how to value it. Examine tax issues in detail, or consult an Estate Planning attorney who can look at your individual situation and let you know your individual issues.
Legal forms should make your life easier, not harder. Use them appropriately, and don’t let your quest to avoid legal fees cloud your judgment. If you’ve taken a good portion of your lifetime to accumulate assets, it’s worth going to an attorney to make sure that the beneficiaries you want to get your assets get them with the least amount of hassle and family strife.
WITH A SATELLITE OFFICE NOW IN PANGUITCH. Jeffery J. McKenna is a local attorney serving clients in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. He is a shareholder at the law firm of Barney McKenna and Olmstead. He is a founding member and former President of the Southern Utah Estate Planning Council. If you have questions regarding this article or if you have a topic you wish to have addressed in this column, you can call 435-628-1711.