"Do-it-yourself" planning? Because of the high cost of (some, not all!) lawyers, some people purchase or download "self-help", fill-in-the-blank legal forms, including will and trust documents, or "do-it-yourself" planning kits. Although less expensive than fees of larger law firms, these methods can’t replace competent, professional help.
I discourage using these forms because each estate is different and some planning objectives require intricate solutions. Even though it’s fairly easy to fill out standard legal forms, that’s only the beginning of the full planning process. Without expert legal help, most people, for example, would fail to retitle some or all of their assets correctly to coordinate with the terms of their will or trust, which could have disastrous consequences for their heirs. Improper titling of assets can cause assets to pass to unintended heirs or cause them to pay unnecessary taxes. People in a "second" or blended marriage are particularly at risk if they use the wrong documents or title assets improperly, because incorrect planning and titling can cause children from one or both of their previous marriages to be disinherited. Using an experienced estate planning lawyer gives you access to a seasoned "mentor," to whom you can turn regularly to learn the latest changes in the law or for advice about difficult planning decisions.
To further tempt (and confuse) the public, I’ve heard some very influential radio and TV personalities recommend that you purchase legal forms from companies which sponsor their programs. Sadly, an influential radio or TV host with knowledge about political or other subjects (but with no knowledge about estate planning) can mislead millions of listeners to plan incorrectly.
I remember watching a "home shopping" program on TV, where a prominent woman financial planner and author was promoting her own "do-it-yourself" estate planning kit, complete with trust, will, powers of attorney, etc. for $49.95. She repeated her sales pitch over and over, proclaiming, "I know the legal forms in my kit are the very best, because they’re identical to the documents my own lawyer, who has many years of estate planning expertise, drafted for me for a large fee!" The implication in her presentation was that you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars like she did — only $49.95 — to get the very same, professional estate plan. Her offer was ludicrous on its face.
Although the documents she was selling may have been included in her own estate plan, her situation differs greatly from that of the millions who trust her advice. Her hypocrisy (as well as that of the other media personalities who recommend "self-help" solutions) is obvious: She relied on expert help to accomplish her own planning, not a do-it-yourself kit! Is the motive of these "document snake-oil salespersons" to really help you or is it to promote these products for a cut of the purchase price? (If you think I’m exaggerating, in the 45 minutes I watched this woman’s "pitch," she racked up "call-in" orders of almost $500,000 for her legal kit!)
The "disclaimer" of one web site purveying self-help documents states (in very, very fine print at the bottom of the home page):
"_____ is not a law firm, and the employees of _____ are not acting as your attorney. . . Instead, you are representing yourself in any legal matter you undertake through _____’s legal document service. _____’s document preparation service includes a review of your answers for completeness, spelling and grammar. . . At no time do we. . .provide legal advice or apply the law to the facts of your particular situation. This website is not a substitute for the advice of an attorney.
"Furthermore, the legal information on this site is not legal advice and is not guaranteed to be correct, complete or up-to-date. . .The law is different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. . . (and) is a personal matter. Therefore, if you need legal advice for your specific problem, or if your specific problem is too complex to be addressed by our tools, you should consult a licensed attorney in your area.
"_____ is not responsible for any loss, injury, claim, liability, or damage related to your use of this site. . . In short, your use of the site is at your own risk." (Italics added)
Pretty reassuring, eh? In short, to be SURE your estate is planned correctly, consult an experienced estate planning attorney and not some document "snake oil" salesperson!