From time to time we’re asked the question “Do people really need an attorney to draft an estate plan? Can’t people just draft one based off what they find on the internet?”
Can they? Well, sure. Of course it can be done. And, while we have assisted with the administration of self-drafted plans that have worked moderately well, those cases were typically very straightforward—like when the entire probate estate passes outright to a single beneficiary who is also the Personal Representative of the estate. Those cases are quite uncommon. Conversely, when the decedents’ self-drafted documents include specific bequests or some other amount of complexity, our experiences have been different.
Presumably the idea for your estate plan is to leave your assets to your named beneficiaries in an efficient manner. That seemingly-minor detail—efficiency—is why it may make sense for an attorney to assist with the planning.
In practice, there are a variety of administrative costs and technicalities that may not be apparent to people who draft their own legal products. Administrative costs can certainly eclipse the savings of drafting the documents at no or low cost. And when the costs associated with administrative compliance during the probate proceeding exceed the cost for having drafted the documents efficiently in the first place, it’s a bit frustrating for all parties involved. (Including the attorneys. Trust us.)
To be sure, hiring an attorney to assist with estate planning has benefits. It will hopefully save time and provide peace of mind that the work is getting done right.
Additionally, hiring an attorney to assist with estate planning may have benefits that are not immediately-obvious. For example, state law requires certain formalities for executing the legal documents (including, among other things, witnessing). An attorney will likely address these requirements, and additionally address other documents that will be helpful at the time of admitting the will to probate, simply through the attorney’s routine.
With any luck (and depending on the nature of a client’s assets), an experienced attorney may be able to plan a solution for distributing assets that accomplishes all goals while avoiding probate entirely. This typically includes preparing one or more transfer documents—in addition to a will—that a client did not know existed, and therefore would not have contemplated during the drafting process. When available, avoiding probate tends to save a lot of time and hassle for beneficiaries. This sort of abbreviated administration is usually more available the more straightforward the plan is intended to be.
While every situation is different, our experience has been that attorneys add value when hired to assist clients in the estate planning process. Our experience has also been that, while administration of self-drafted legal documents may be cheap, since administration costs often exceed drafting savings, it usually couldn’t be considered frugal.
So perhaps another way to look at the initial question is “Does the value of using an attorney to draft an estate plan leave more of a person’s estate to the intended beneficiaries than internet self-help estate planning?”
Hopefully so. Feel free to contact us if we can be of assistance.
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