In a recent article in the New York Times (Making Wills Easier and Cheaper with Do-It-Yourself Options), the author notes that many people don't have a will in place and that online do-it-yourself type services may be a good option for them. From there, though, the misinformation then abounds, and I fear that this article does more harm than good by scaring people away from the idea of using experienced estate planning attorneys to get their ducks in a row and avoid problems for themselves and their family. Here's what I mean:
* The author discusses Aretha Franklin dying without a will, leaving her estate to go through probate, and then adds that probate is, “a process that any estate lawyer would make sure a client avoided.” That's simply a misinformed statement. In many states, including Georgia, probate is not a process to be feared or one that has to be avoided. Our probate process is relatively quick and easy and not overly expensive. Because of this, many experienced estate lawyers – and their clients -are quite comfortable with some assets going through the probate process after the client dies. Sure, many assets could be moved into a trust created during the client's lifetime to avoid probate, but the cost of doing that may outweigh any advantages, and it simply may not make financial sense.
Importantly, many assets, such as retirement accounts (401(k)s and IRAs, life insurance, and assets held with another person as joint tenants with right of survivorship), bypass the probate process all together. These non-probate assets are distributed in accordance with beneficiary designations on file with the asset custodian, or in the case of jointly held property, passes to the surviving owner.
* The author also asserts that, “It is common for estate planning fees to run into the tens of thousands of dollars.”What? Where is this possible and how does this happen? And do I need to raise my fees? This statement sounds crazy to me.
Here, I believe that this author is seriously misinformed. And, what's really unusual is that the author cites to a lawyer in the Milwaukee area who explains that a complete estate plan for his clients may run about $2,000. The reality is that, for most couples in Georgia, they're going to pay $2,000 or less for a foundational estate plan consisting of wills, durable powers of attorney and advance directives for healthcare for each adult.For most adults in Georgia, these foundational documents are all that is necessary. The market (at least every market I know of) won't bear “tens of thousands of dollars” for estate planning work for most people, and it really is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
The Dangers of Doing It Yourself
Where I do agree with the author in this article is where he shares comments from an attorney that online planning services may miss some key nuances and may not get the proper result for the client, though I'm not convinced that the author recognizes that the consequences of these mistakes may be very serious.
In my practice, I've seen several situations where clients had used online or self-serve type services to complete some estate planning documents, and the documents were not completed in a manner to provide the client's desired outcome because of some nuance in the language, or, even worse, the completed product seemingly contradicted the client's wishes as to who should inherit and who should not.
Case in point: Last week I had a discussion with someone about a will that his mother had completed through some type of online service. The mother had deceased and now the family was working to administer the estate. Some family members believed that mom wanted to leave some assets to her children as well as some to her grandchildren. Some grandchildren were born after mom signed the will and their names were not mentioned in the will. The will defined grandchildren as only those people specifically named in the will and did not define the term as a group of people consisting of the children of her children by birth or adoption, or step-child relationships. These after-born grandchildren it seems are then excluded as beneficiaries and effectively disinherited.
It could be that mom wanted all of her grandchildren, including those born after she signed her will, to share in her assets after she died, or, it could be that she only wanted those grandchildren listed by name in her will to inherit. Her will was not clear on that point, but it says what it says at this point and cannot be changed. In a situation like this, I believe (as I think most other attorneys would as well) that the after-born grandchildren are disinherited because of the language in the will itself.
You need to know that words and sentences have consequences, and your planning documents are construed (read) accordingly.
Why Use an Attorney Instead of Doing It Yourself?
The biggest value that attorneys bring to the planning process is guiding the client through the process itself. This means that the attorney works to make sure that the client has fully thought through options, understands where potential problems might arise and how to avoid those -and then develops a strategy to meet the client's desired outcomes and appropriately documents that plan in writing. And that personal touch and wisdom is something that no computer system can easily replicate. Often, when we sit down with an individual or a couple in our initial Family Protection Strategy Session to discuss their situation and wishes, we ask questions and highlight situations that the clients tell us they had not considered, but quickly saw that their plans needed to address those potential scenarios. That's adding value to preparing a solid estate plan – something that these do-it-yourself plans don't handle well.
The bottom line is this: some do-it-yourself systems may work fine, if you know what you are doing. But if you don't, there is certainly value added by working with someone who does.And that value proposition may be priceless if it makes sure your wishes are followed and your family is taken care of and protected.
If you want to learn how estate planning in Georgia is likely easier than you think, contact us to request our free Georgia Estate Planning Guide. We'll send that to you for free, no strings attached. Or, if you've decided you're ready to get your ducks in a row, call our office to schedule your Family Protection Strategy Session to begin the process of protecting yourself and your loved ones.