Hire a Lawyer vs. DIY Documents for Family Estate Planning?

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Estate planning helps you keep an eye on your family’s future

When it came to creating a Will for our family, the phrase “I don’t know, what I don’t know” popped into my head A LOT! There’s so much legalese, that I just didn’t know what questions I should be asking or what I needed to research further.

With sites like LegalZoom, BuildAWill, LegacyWriter, and more, the ability to create your Will has never been easier.

Or is it?

I haven’t tried all the sites out there – though this NY Times article is a great explanation of the pros/cons of many of them – but to me many of them make me wonder what I’m not getting that I don’t know about.

We chose a lawyer to help us draft our documents. I just felt more comfortable that way. While preparing them we were asked so many questions I wouldn’t have considered previously, which led me to wonder are DIY documents really worth the savings?

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I reached out to Michelle-Shari Kruss (who did our documents), an attorney specializing in Estate Wills and Trusts, to inquire what she sees with her clients and the difference between going DIY and hiring a lawyer.

Here’s what she had to say:

A Will is one of the most important legal documents you will draft. It is also a gift to your family.

It says, ‘I have taken the time to personally and actively make sure that if anything happens I have put as many safeguards as possible into place to make sure my loved ones have as much protection as possible’.

Only through a Will can you let the Court and your family know who you feel is the best surrogate parent (Guardian) if you cannot be there to raise your child/children to adulthood and the reasons why those pre-considered individuals were chosen (and perhaps, why other family members were not).

  • A Will is your opportunity to personally choose who you feel is best suited to safeguard your children’s inheritance (Trustee) and to decide when you feel your children will be old enough to start receiving their own money to manage.
  • A Will can maximize how much of your estate passes through to your spouse and children tax free (why leave money on the table?). 
  • A well drafted Will can do this and so much more. To be successful though, a Will requires a proper framework, the flexibility to anticipate changes that may occur as your family grows and guided advice by someone who can assist with beneficiary designation and follow up questions.

Think about the estate planning process being like a day rafting down a river. Of course, you can read up about the river on your own. You can post questions online. You can even buy all of the equipment.

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Traveling, alone, down that stretch of river with a young family might give you pause. Perhaps, it would be wiser to have a guide? It’s a new experience. Maybe you are already an experienced boater. But this is a new river and the currents may have changed. You might feel more comfortable venturing out with your family in tow if you truly have the confidence in knowing safeguards are in place should there be a hiccup along your journey. A river guide can assuredly help make it a positive experience. A guide, like an attorney, with a proven track record working with families such as your own, will know how to cater your personal experience to be as positive, informative and comprehensive as possible. Your river/legal guide will listen to your concerns, anticipate areas you may not have considered and put the correct gear in the boat to make sure everyone has what (whether adult or child) to feel comfortable, protected and educated.

An on-line Will template is not an attorney. The computer generated questionnaire cannot cannot give legal advice of any kind, cannot modify your answers in any way, cannot do any custom drafting that is responsive to your family’s particular set of facts, cannot think “outside the box”, cannot answer any questions and cannot suggest alternatives routes on the fly.

What on-line Will templates seem to want their customers to ignore, is the very simple fact that every family is special and unique. It is very important not to try and wedge a family into a one-size-fits-all template document. An attorney is crucial to the personalized and educated planning process. An estate planning attorney knows the questions to ask, and knows what to do with the answers and if a follow up question is necessary. A legal guide can read the hesitation in a parent’s voice or the sideways glance as they struggle to decide who to choose as guardian, trustee or personal representative. The planning starts with completing a family questionnaire. But those answers are only a starting place to begin a more comprehensive back and forth discussion (not possible with a computer generated form). The in person initial appointment and follow up reviews are where you really get to the heart of what concerns parents have and how best to address them.

The material contained in this article is for general informational purposes only. You should not rely upon it as advice about specific legal problems.

Michelle-Shari Kruss is a an Attorney at Law specializing in estate planning (Wills & Trusts). For over seventeen years Michelle-Shari has been helping fellow parents address all of their estate planning needs. Her clients range from families needing a basic Will and Trust, to those parents requiring a slightly more advanced plan (to care for a special needs child, to address a taxable estate, one spouse is non US-Citizen “Global Couple”, there is a family business, they own property outside of Oregon, or a part of a blended family, etc.) She is based in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children.

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