I had lunch with a good friend this week. We talked and caught up with each other, work, family, etc. It was a good conversation. He told me in advance that he was going to bring his wills and estate planning documents to lunch to have me take a quick look; he had some concerns about them. That was fine with me, I was happy to do that for him.
We took a quick glance at the documents. They had been executed properly, and seemed to be in good order, meaning that they would likely be accepted by the Probate Court as a validly executed will. But they weren't what I would have written, and there were several areas of concern that I pointed out for my friend to consider. He told me that the wills were prepared several years ago (before I went into private practice) and that they were done for free for him by a legal services plan he was a member of for a brief period. As we progressed thought the concerns I identified, my friend said words to the effect that he now sees why it can be very smart to have an attorney do your will. I couldn't agree more.
Sure, you can have a plan do your will, or even do it yourself through an online site or using a fill-in-the-blank type of form. And, like my friend, the will might get executed properly and be accepted by the Probate Court. But if the will doesn't really carry out your true wishes, if it doesn't really provide for your family as you desire, and if you aren't educated about your choices and the best options and don't know how to complete the document, have you accomplished anything? You might have saved a little bit of money, but that little bit saved won't mean much when it's time to probate the will and your family is left holding the bag with expensive legal fees or unwise distributions because things weren't handled right the first time.
In my friend's will I identified these issues:
* The guardian for his children was the same as the trustee for his children. This puts a big burden on one person, and does not create much accountability. By spreading the work out, additional checks and balances can be instituted, increasing accountability while ensuring that children are appropriately cared for.
* Assets were placed in trust for minor aged children, but the trust terminated once each child reached the age of 18. Almost all 18 year olds are not sufficiently mature and experienced enough to receive an inheritance of any meaningful size. There are options to trickle out assets over time to ensure that the child completes his or her education, develops a work ethic, and gets some life experience and learns the value of a dollar. This way, an inheritance can be a blessing and not a curse, and might actually last for some time as my friend would intend.
* My friend had not received instructions and guidance on what to do with non-probatable assets (such as IRAs, 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, and life insurance policies to name a few) in connection with his will. He thought his will would handle all of these items, but it does not. So, without following a few needed steps, these assets would become his children's assets when they reach 18, should something happen to my friend and his wife. His plan's services got him a free will, but it failed to take care of everything that is needed (and apparently didn't tell him about that).
* There were some misspellings of family member's names, and one person listed as a back-up executor was never intended to be listed for that position. Can mistakes happen when an attorney does a will? Yes, but it would be, I think, far less likely for these types of mistakes to occur.
There might be more problems or issues to be considered, but this is what a two-minute review identified. It was enough for my friend to know that he had some issues to discuss with his wife, and needed to take some steps to take care of his estate planning.
Understand that when you hire an experienced lawyer to complete your will or other estate planning documents, you're not paying that person to fill in some blanks on some forms. You're paying for that attorney's skills, experience, and knowledge to know what forms to use, what language to insert, what issues you really need to consider and act on, and to give you advice and guidance on how to best structure your documents to end up with a comprehensive plan that is tailored to meet your needs at an affordable price. As my friend said today, yep, that's why it's smart to have an attorney do your will. I couldn't agree more.