With the advent of the Internet, there is almost no limit to the idea of “do-it-yourself” (DIY). Theoretically, you could do anything yourself with a little bit of research and a few resources – even when it comes to legal matters. A will, for example, is technically only a single document with your signature and a few relevant details – and pre-made templates for a last will and testament can easily be found online.
There is nothing wrong with being prepared – and it is never too soon to think about setting up your own estate. Most estate planning tools are revocable and can be easily changed, updated, renewed as needed – if you have something to leave your children, then setting up a will or another document could save your loved ones a lot of emotional and financial distress in the event of a tragedy.
Using an online site as a source for legal templates, and then expounding upon them with your own limited knowledge of what is and is not necessitated in a will may sound thrifty, but what it is really doing is inviting trouble into your life. Estate planning does not have to be needlessly complicated, but it does require a solid understanding of your state’s inheritance laws, what different documents can and cannot do, and what needs you have given your assets and belongings.
It is not so much that your document will not be valid – in the contrary, its validity could endanger your family’s right to an inheritance if your financial situation ends up being more complex than average. Here are a few things to consider before you decide to take up estate planning all on your own.
Evaluate Your Unique Legal Situation
It is relatively rare for someone to be in a position where a self-made last will and testament could be considered absolutely sufficient to cover all the considerations behind estate planning. Ultimately, your goal in designing an inheritance for your loved ones is a maximum reward for minimum cost – and aside from the little pitfalls such as tax considerations and inefficiencies in probate, some considerations can pose serious problems for your estate.
Consider a complicated relationship with a previous spouse, estranged children, or the fact that you may have joint ownership of certain properties that cannot be transferred into a will. Furthermore, if you are uncomfortable with the idea of giving up your financial privacy, then a will may not be for you – any will declared in court will be a matter of the public record, and all wills must pass through a probate court before the state can grant the will legitimacy and give an executor the power to distribute your assets as you saw fit.
Estate Planning Drafting Don’ts
There are ways to do a will intelligently, and these ways involve copious amounts of research into your local laws. If you are intent on setting up your own estate plan without the help of a professional, then you are free to do so – but be sure to build based on an existing and solid foundation. A will is more than a piece of paper with a few sentences detailing what you want people to do with your belongings upon death – a proper last will and testament should be a well-organized legal document giving a clear overview of your wishes without leaving any room for misguided or misunderstood interpretation.
In other words, do not just sit down and write a draft from scratch – choose a reputable source for a sample of a quality last will and testament, and use it as a basis for your first draft.
Even then, it never hurts to ask real living lawyers in your area – even online – to give you an opinion on your legal work. Some may take you up on the offer for a free review, while others might ask for a nominal fee in exchange for their opinion.
Trusts vs. Living Trusts
Estate planning is ultimately about making sure that what you own now will find its way into the hands of those you care about in a manner that costs as little as possible in the long term. While you may not personally have to care about the costs of your inheritance process, ultimately planning your estate out poorly can mean that a sizeable portion of it will go towards getting it into the hands of your family, while months are spent deliberating whether what you had to say before your death regarding your estate was legitimate, to begin with.
Furthermore, if you have family problems or live a complicated financial life, then chances are that a simple DIY last will and testament will do your loved ones no real favors when it comes to inheritance. There are better ways to plan an estate, chief among them the living trust.
A living trust is an estate planning tool that allows you to avoid probate, keep your financial details private, and give you the ability to transfer a more complicated line of assets to your loved ones. It also goes into effect upon your permanent disability rather than just upon death. Probate can be nightmarish for some families, especially if your family is a complicated one, where disputes are common.
Even with a trust, there are still things to consider when planning. A trust may not be ideal for motor vehicles, retirement accounts, and certain life insurance policies. Be sure to see to it that all your relevant assets not funded into a trust have listed beneficiaries, so that these receive the full value of your wealth when you die.
Furthermore, a trust cannot determine guardianship of your minor children, or help you determine who receives full financial and healthcare-related power of attorney in your stead in the case of incapacity.
Long story short, there is more to estate planning than downloading a will and filling out the relevant details, signing it in front of your family and then getting it notarized as an official document. An intelligent estate plan will leave your children and loved ones with so much more, and it can help you plan not just for your death, but for your potential disability as well.