Common Mistakes Made When Estate Planning Without a Legal Professional

A close friend of mine and his wife obtained estimates from two contractors to remodel their kitchen. Shocked by the estimates, my friend somehow convinced his wife (and himself) that he had all of the necessary tools and the skills to undertake the project himself, and to complete it for nearly half of what the contractors were going to charge. After all, he watched countless home improvement shows and was certain that he could do the job.

Taking a one-week vacation, he commenced and completed demolition of the kitchen on day one. On day two, he quickly realized that his plumbing and electrical skills were a little less honed than he had originally believed. On day three, he realized that installing cabinets was much more complicated than he ever imagined. On day four, feeling defeated, my friend embarrassingly admitted to himself and to his wife that he needed help.

Making a long story short, the kitchen remodel was completed by a professional contractor (who himself hired plumbing and electrical subcontractors) nearly two months later at a cost of 25 percent more than the original estimates because the contractor had to correct the work performed by my friend. Although he and his wife laugh about it today, they nearly got a divorce because my friend mistakenly believed that he did not need any help.

Similar to the above story, many people choose to prepare their own estate planning documents without retaining or consulting professionals. After all, there are countless forms you can download from the internet without having to pay an estate planning attorney to prepare them.

The problem with “do-it-yourself” estate planning is very similar to the story about the kitchen remodel above. Although I am not certain who to credit with the following statement, it has become increasingly more meaningful to me the older I get: “You don’t know what you don’t know before you know.”

As an attorney who focuses his practice on estate planning and estate administration, I have encountered many, many do-it-yourself estate plans which resulted in unfortunate, unintended, and oftentimes very costly situations. Below are only a few examples:

  1. A father assumed that the real estate owned by his great-grandparents had automatically transferred to each successive generation. He prepared his own deeds to divide the property into equal parcels for each of his children. After the father died, his children attempted to sell the property, only to discover that the property was still legally owned in the name of their great, great-grandmother. After several months and spending many thousands of dollars in legal fees, the children became the collective owners of only one-half of the property, with their cousins owning the other half. Discovering that they all had very different ideas about how the property should be managed, a lawsuit was eventually filed to settle their differences, and the two families no longer speak to each other.
  1. A husband and wife created their own wills which failed to include a provision appointing guardians of their minor children. Tragically, they both died in an automobile accident. The parents of the husband and the parents of the wife found themselves in a highly contested and very expensive legal action, each couple seeking appointment as guardians for the minor children.
  1. A son told his mother that she did not need a health care or financial power of attorney, which she believed. Several months later, Mom suffered a debilitating stroke, which left her unable to manage her financial affairs or to make health care decisions. Mom’s three children had very different opinions and ideas about health care, end-of-life, and financial decisions for their mother. One of the kids then hired a lawyer to obtain court appointment as mom’s guardian and conservator. The other two kids hired their own lawyers to contest the proceeding.
  1. A mother of five children refuses to see an estate planning attorney because she was certain it would be a waste of money. She absolutely wanted all of her children to share equally in her estate at death. However, one of the children convinced mom to name him as a joint owner or pay-on-death beneficiary of all her assets with an assurance that he would share equally with his siblings. After Mom died, the one sibling who became the owner of all assets refused to share his mother’s assets with his other siblings. The four left-out siblings hired an attorney and sued their brother.

I could go on and on with more examples, but the common denominator to most of these examples is that the individuals who refused or failed to seek professional assistance simply did not know what they did not know. The consequences in these examples are most certainly not what the individuals intended.

Now, to pick up where this story started, my friend and his wife are still happily married. They recently hired a contractor to remodel one of the bathrooms in their home while they went on a vacation. I could not agree with this decision more.

Do not let your lack of professional estate planning create problems after your death. Call the attorneys at PBWS Law today at 505.872.0505.