THE DANGERS OF DO-IT-YOURSELF ESTATE PLANNING

The primary goals of estate planning are to help manage, preserve, and protect your estate at your death or during incapacity. A number of online companies advertise do-it-yourself (DIY) wills and trusts, providing legal documents with fill-in-the-blank forms to customers for low rates. Though these services may be slightly less expensive than hiring an attorney to draft a proper will, improper drafting and execution is the biggest risk for the DIY estate planner. When the mistake is discovered after the death of the creator, the time and money it takes to remedy the error could cost the family much more money. 

The American Bar Association (ABA) recently designated a task force to evaluate the use of DIY methods in estate planning. It identified a number of concerns and potential deficiencies that could result from using the DIY approach. Most notable of the ABA's concerns was the risk of an outcome far different from what the deceased intended. For example, the creator of the will may not prepare for contingencies such as the birth of new children, being predeceased by children, or divorce. Other concerns include the lack of a disinterested party (such as a lawyer) to explain the estate holder's options and lack of guidance regarding estate taxes and potential tax-saving measures.

The ABA task force highlighted a New Jersey case where a man purchased a will form kit. The man handwrote his intentions on the form document, signed it, but did not have it properly witnessed. Believing that he had properly completed his will, he apparently committed suicide. His heirs were left not only with severe emotional distress, but also financial disarray. (In New Jersey, language on a preprinted form is not admissible when the will was not properly signed without witnesses.) Litigation ensued that went all the way up to the New Jersey appellate court, costing the family much money.

As this case shows, hiring an attorney for assistance during the estate-planning process will help avoid numerous costly errors. An experienced New Jersey attorney can answer your questions about estate planning and help you draft, review, or update your current will or determine whether a trust is more appropriate for you and your family.

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