What’s Wrong with DIY Estate Plans?

Posted by Sheri Tucker, M.S., J.D.Aug 02, 20210 Comments

Do It Yourself (DIY) projects exist in many different areas such as landscaping, bathroom remodeling, and even pouring a patio. Consumers browse through websites and links watching instructional videos and reading how-to manuals.  People read and try to find answers to complex questions.  If a mistake happens, the fallback plan is either try to fix it or hire a professional.  While a physical project is fixable, mistakes in a Last Will and Testament are not correctable. Whether you are considering writing your own will or using an online “do it yourself” (DIY) document creator, many reasons exist that demonstrate why this is one project you should not undertake without the help of an estate planning attorney.

What is a Do It Yourself Estate Plan?

Because of the current pandemic, many Americans are becoming aware of the importance of creating or updating their estate planning documents.  Many mistakenly believe that an estate plan is merely wishes written on a piece of paper.  A DIY estate plan is when a person handwrites a “will” for him or herself.  Perhaps, the person downloads a “fill-in-the-blank” documents from the Internet; or answer pre-set questions on an online document generator. If it's on a website, what is the problem with a DIY estate plan?  If it's bought online and touts developed by attorneys, isn't' it good enough? 

DIY Common Mistakes

When it comes to the DIY estate plan, common mistakes exist.  Whereas you may fix an “oops” for a home project, an estate plan “oops” mandates professional help, which is costly.  Sometimes that big mistake, well, it's too late to fix. When a person dies, whatever document is in place, that's it. At death, you or even your family can't fix mistakes.  Let's review common mistakes for a DIY estate plan.

Differences in State Laws

One mistake is the claim to meet “state law.”  Website forms may claim to conform to state laws.  Most often this is not the case.  Laws differ from state to state. States vary in what constitutes a valid Last Will and Testament.  The online form may not meet state legal requirements for a valid Last Will.  The generic form may not adequately address legal issues about property in other states.  To be valid, a Last Will and Testament must meet state laws.

Issues also occur when state and federal laws change. Often, and the DIYer does not update the plan or understand the need to update.  New tax laws affect estate planning. Case law and statutory revisions affect estate planning. Overall, the cheaper DIY is pricier. It's not a touchdown, it's not a catch of a Hail Mary pass, it's a missed throw in the end zone.

Information Problems

Another costly mistake focuses on information issues.  A DIY estate plan increases information problems.  The document could contain inaccurate, incomplete, or contradictory information.  Creating a will using an online questionnaire, increases the possibility of selecting wrong choices.  Worse, the generic form may cause a person to leave out important information.  

Potential problems happen when do-it-yourself services allow users to insert additional information not addressed by the service's preset questionnaire.  The added information by the DIY usually contradicts other parts of the automated will.  The ease of just logging into your account to make changes raises questions.  Do you know how the Secure Act affected your retirement benefits?  What is portability and do you need to adjust your estate plan? Did a spouse become incapacitated?  What changes should you consider?

Information problems may prevent a person's will from accomplishing desired goals. Worse yet, it may not mean what you think it means.  In the end, it's better to work with an estate planning attorney to make sure your plan truly is peace of mind for you and your family.

Words Matter

Words in an estate plan have specific definitions.  Perhaps the DIY includes a living trust where one just fills in basic information.  The result is a low-priced living trust with legal terms a person may not understand.  What is the difference between a beneficiary and a designated beneficiary? Do you include Unitrust language or not? What is a general power of appointment, and do you need it?  What is a limited testamentary power of appointment?  A Revocable Living Trust should not be a generic document.  It is a living plan with specific language that helps put the right financial goals in place for you and your family.  Regular meetings with an estate planning attorney ensure that your plan accomplishes your goals; instead of causing major headaches for a grieving family.

Life Changes

The DIY estate plan may not account for life changing circumstances.  The fill-in-the-blank form that you print out does not account for life changes. What if both you and your spouse die simultaneously?  Do you really understand all the choices? if your child dies before you, who receives your assets?  What if no grandchildren exist?  What if your child has large debt?  Do you want the inheritance to pay off that debt?  What if the debt is a gambling debt? What happens if property is left to a child but sold before death?  Does that mean they receive nothing?  Even worse, what if a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer's or dementia?  Does that generic Last Will truly protect you if there is incapacity?  Unfortunately, many people do not have good DIY plans for life changes. 

DIY Developed by Attorneys

Often, a person comes across a website that supports its forms as developed by attorneys with an “expert team” to help you.  What kind of attorneys?  Today, attorneys strive to hone skills in specific legal areas to better serve you, the Client.  Is it an attorney with experience in estate planning or elder law?  Is it a recent law school graduate who just passed the bar exam?  Usually, if you want an attorney, you pay extra.  Ask if you will always talk to the same attorney supporting you?  Or is the attorney merely a contract worker on the side? Ponder the following: Who makes up the expert team that helps you answer questions?  Is it an experienced estate planning paralegal who helps you answer the questions?  Who is giving you legal advice? Is the person licensed to practice law?
Lawyer developed and hiring a lawyer is not comparable.  You and your family deserve to sit down with an estate planning attorney for a life plan design.  Your personal care attorney advocates for the right planning. A DIY estate plan is not the Geico insurance commercial where “15 minutes can save you money.”

More DIY Mistakes

A DIY estate plan may lead to a false sense of security.  It may not achieve what you think it does. Your DIY estate plan may not be valid.  An invalid estate plan means that your property and money will go to heirs specified by state law, and they may not be your choice.  Your trust may have substantial issues that do not follow tax law requirements. Not understanding current tax laws for the estate affects the family. Even if an ordered form is signed and notarized, it means nothing if the trust remains unfunded. An unfunded trust in an ineffective estate plan. An unfunded trust means your property will go through Probate Court. 

Your Estate Planning Attorney

I listed some typical mistakes or unforeseen issues that could cost you and your family grief and more money.  Too often I dealt with invalid Wills for some of the common DIY mistakes. Trying to do your estate plan yourself may seem less expensive, in the long run, it ends up being more costly. You and your family deserve an estate plan that is a life plan to fit your life, your assets, and family changes.  Book now for your complimentary consultation.