October 2, 2014

The Dangers of Do It Yourself (DIY) Estate Planning

The Eternal Struggle: Client, Attorney and Fees
A common reason why some people balk at writing a trust or will through an attorney is because of the cost. The familiar refrain goes that why pay an attorney in excess of a thousand dollars when you can find a document online or just draft something yourself, a holographic instrument. Furthermore, a self-represented person does not have to meet with the attorney multiple times to review the documents and can conclude the process rather expediently.

One of the pitfalls with this line of thinking, there are many, is that a person almost always does not fully understand the ramifications of their decisions. A hypothetical fill-in document can be completed in mere minutes but can have a lasting effect. Moreover, there is no second chance opportunity when writing a trust or will essentially. A court is very reluctant to re-write a testamentary instrument. So do it once, do it right.

Whereas an attorney can advise a client on the various issues raised by an important testamentary decision, e.g. leave everything to my children at age 25, a self-represented person often fails to grasp such. The following are instances of mistakes I have seen a self-represented person make on their testamentary document that could've been easily avoided if they had hired an attorney.

A terminally ill parent wanted to leave their home to ostensibly their daughter. In the distribution clause of the trust, the parent named the daughter as the sole beneficiary. Yet on the trust's schedule of assets, the father listed the house as being equally split between the daughter and granddaughter, a minor. The daughter sought counsel for a Heggstad petition because the father had not transferred title to his trust prior to his passing. The obvious problem was the contradictory distribution scheme, i.e. was the house to go to the daughter exclusively or was it to be split equally between daughter and granddaughter? Any competent attorney would have spotted this clear inconsistency and counseled their client to correct this ambiguity before signing the document. 

A mother wrote a trust through an attorney that names her two children, son and daughter, as the primary beneficiaries with her grandchildren as the contingent remainder beneficiaries. A year later, she amends her trust through the same attorney, but does not alter the existing distribution scheme. That is, the amended trust still stated that the estate goes to her two children and her grandchildren are the contingent remainder beneficiaries  A few years later, the mother writes a rambling unsigned holographic document that designates the daughter as the sole beneficiary of her estate basically. Son naturally objects to the enforceability of the holographic document and prevailed in court. The obvious red flags were that the document was unsigned and the decedent did not use an attorney even though she had done so in the past. Again, a competent attorney would have counseled the decedent to sign any document which they wanted to have testamentary effect and to
follow the right procedures for amending a trust. For example, it is prudent to notarize any trust document, whether it be the actual trust, a trust amendment, a trust restatement or a certificate of trust.