I know some excellent plumbers and electricians that work in the area where I live. I occasionally use their services. But I almost always try to do it myself first. I am usually very careful before I start a project by first reviewing videos on YouTube or reading a how to manual. Many suppliers of parts have detailed videos or customer service representatives to provide guidance. I acknowledge that many self-help or do it yourself resources also are available for wills, trusts, and powers of attorney. Free forms are even available from various State of Wisconsin websites. So, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite when I say the answer to the question should you do it yourself is no. I feel less of a hypocrite when I recall that after my son was born and I was already had been an attorney for five years, I retained a law school classmate of mine to prepare my first will. The following are my three best reasons why estate planning is not a do it yourself project.
YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
Dedicated estate planning attorneys spend countless hours learning how to counsel clients and prepare wills, trusts, and powers of attorney. Before I attempted to prepare my first will for a client, I spent three years in law school and over a hundred hours attending specialized classes on estate planning and reviewing materials from legal publishers. Before preparing my first revocable living trust, I attended forty hours of training from leaders in the field of trust planning. Despite all this training, I was still apprehensive about the initial plans that I prepared. To make sure my clients were being provided quality service, I belonged an organization that provided me with access to nationally recognized experts in the field. Even after almost twenty years in the field, I still occasionally need to bounce ideas off of other accomplished estate planners.
During almost every initial meeting I have with clients, I hear in response to several of my questions,”I never thought of that.” Since most non-lawyers would not know where to start or end, I recommend an experienced estate planning attorney to lead you on your way. Handling issues involving underage beneficiaries (minor children and grandchildren), beneficiaries with disabilities, and second marriages require very special attention.
MISTAKES CAN BE VERY COSTLY
Mistakes on self-prepared documents range from not having the documents properly witnessed to using documents not appropriate for Wisconsin residents. Improperly prepared documents are normally unenforceable. Even if a will or trust is perfectly prepared, other issues may not have been properly considered. For instance, failing to update a 401(k) beneficiary designation following a divorce can lead to an ex-spouse receiving the proceeds instead of your children upon your death. An experience estate planning attorney will know that coordination of matters outside the usual planning documents can have real significance. An effective estate plan needs to coordinate the estate planning documents with beneficiary designations for life insurance, retirements accounts, and employee benefits. An improperly prepared beneficiary designation could lead to an avoidable probate proceeding costing thousands of dollars and months of delay. Worse than the financial cost could be the emotional cost of the wrong person inheriting your estate.
THE COST OF A PLAN LIKELY IS LESS THAN YOU WOULD THINK
If you inquire, an estate planning attorney who will meet with you initially at no cost should be available in your area. So the cost to find out the fee for an estate plan should not discourage you from seeking professional assistance. In order to make the best use of your time and the attorney’s time, please read my entry on how to prepare for an initial estate planning consultation.
My policy is to provide a free initial consultation. At the end of the initial meeting, you will be quoted a fixed fee for the services which are recommended. I usually spend up to 90 minutes with a single individual and 2-3 hours with a married couple. At the end of the meeting I make recommendations and quote a fixed fee. I urge you to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you with preparation of a plan. If you live in Southeastern Wisconsin, feel free to contact me if you are interested in learning more.