Like almost everything else, individuals are able to do their own estate planning without professional help.
However, just because one can doesn’t mean one should. Gina Ciani, partner and chair of the estate planning and probate department at Meyers, Roman, Friedberg and Lewis in Woodmere, and Abbie Pappas, estate planning attorney and associate at Singerman, Mills, Desberg & Kauntz Co. LPA in Beachwood, both say the risk of making a mistake is greater without help.
“It’s possible to do your estate plan (without counsel) as there are websites, like Legal Zoom, where you can download the forms,” Pappas said. “But the primary problem with those is Ohio has strict rules on how these documents need to be executed in order to be valid. So, you can download those forms, but you have no way of knowing if you did it properly or if it was appropriate for you.”
Ciani added, “I always say that DIY estate planning is akin to DIY home improvement. I can waterproof my own basement if I look it up, but that’s the foundation of my home, so I’m not going to risk it. So, you can look up the state’s requirements for your estate plan but that’s just the first step.”
As one’s estate plan is their last testament to living family, Ciani said not understanding how property passes after death is a heavy consequence.
“A lot of it comes down to misunderstanding the law,” she said. “Mistakes can leave loved ones disappointed and confused. That’s an emotional toll.”
Ciani and Pappas detailed some risks that come with independently filing an estate plan.
“They could execute their documents improperly and that can happen in various ways,” Pappas said. “So, you could screw up the logistics. Or, you might not include provisions you wouldn’t know about unless you talked to a lawyer. But, mostly, you might not be taking advantage of estate planning techniques that could be beneficial for you.”
Ciani added individuals also run the risk of not truly understanding their family dynamic.
“It’s about understanding the roles of your loved ones, and having someone explain those roles is important,” she said. “You may not understand if someone is the right person to be a trustee. The other thing people take into consideration is unique beneficiaries. The planning has to be different for those people, be it special needs or self-destructive individuals. It’s about protecting those loved ones.”
When an estate plan is filed with a mistake, many things can happen if it is not rectified before death.
“The plan that you’re stuck with at that point could have terrible consequences on the beneficiaries,” Ciani explained. “After that, you might have to do something called ‘post-mortem planning’ in trying to discern what the decedent actually wanted. But, you usually can’t do that without court approval. It can also be costly and difficult.”
Pappas added, “If executed improperly, the documents aren’t valid at all. Or you might have executed them properly but the provisions aren’t listed in the right way. It’s kind of like ‘a penny wise, a pound foolish’ in these situations.”
By using a professional, individuals have access to information and guidelines they might not otherwise consider.
“An estate planning attorney can definitely save you money in the long run,” Pappas said. “The legal technicalities are worth it too – but a lawyer can also offer guidance, even if it isn’t legal-related. We can also guide people and help them figure out what will work for their family.”
Ciani added, “We also have the updated knowledge of the law. The law changes all the time. Estate planning is very much tied to the IRS code, which is legislatively driven. Political changes often change estate planning drastically.”