Natalie A. Roberts, J.D., LL.M.
Natalie A. Roberts, J.D., LL.M.

Five True Stories About “Do-It-Yourself” Estate Planning Gone Terribly Wrong

Thanks to the continuing advancements in technology, today’s generation knows a thing or two about being resourceful. Most answers to our pressing questions are quite literally at our fingertips– so much so, in fact, that this “do-it-yourself” mentality has flowed over to legal documents, a risky enterprise, indeed.

There are countless software programs and websites that sell do-it-yourself estate planning documents. These websites and form tools seem to offer a convenient and cost-effective alternative to consulting with an estate planning attorney. But the fact is, creating your own estate plan without professional advice can have catastrophic consequences.

For one, every situation is unique and should be handled personally; ensuring your family and legacy are protected is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Is online, do-it-yourself estate planning worth the perceived upfront savings? There’s a reason “you get what you pay for” is a timeless adage.

What’s even more alarming is eighty percent of people who fill in blank forms to create legal documents do so incorrectly.

Are you going to beat the odds and take a risk on your family?

Read on for five true testimonials — or more so, horror stories! — about those who have done just that… and why you never want to be in any of their shoes.

“I’m in the middle of a $5 million probate where the thrifty testator went online to do his own will.  He ended up with an eight page will and had it witnessed by three people (only two were required), who also wrote his initials on each page.  Later on, this same thrifty testator decided to change his will; therefore, he re-drafted the first four pages, removed the original four pages and just stapled the new ones on top. No witnesses; no new signature. When he passed away unexpectedly in his late 50s, he died intestate because his will was invalid. Now we are in the third year of a complex and expensive probate. It’s a mess. Thrifty online drafting from a do-it-yourself program definitely did not pay off.”

“I had a client who prepared his own revocable trust; then he purchased a homestead in the name of the trust. When he decided to change the terms of the trust, he revoked the trust and created a new trust, with a different name, all the while leaving the homestead titled in the original trust. Then he died. The effect of the revocation is that the homestead reverts to his name, not his estate. He died without a will. As a result, by intestate succession, his two estranged children from a previous marriage receive the homestead, subject to the wife’s homestead right to remain in the home for her lifetime. Just a tiny little problem in this do-it-yourselfer.”

“I had a client approach me to draft his will, but after thinking it was too expensive, opted to create his own will online. He was in a second marriage and had two children from the previous marriage, and his current wife had none. He had $5 million, and she had $2 million; they also had a self-drafted prenup. His self-made documents left everything to his wife with a statement ‘I want you to leave the balance to my children.’ He died and there were no survivorship clauses in his will. She died a week later before she had a chance to create a will to leave to his kids (her stated intention). The worst part? Every penny of his $5 million and her $2 million went to her family. She was an only child of an only child. She hadn’t seen her mother in more than 50 years and had no relationship with her father, who abandoned both her and her mother when she was eight months old. He never paid a dollar of child support. This is the family who received the money. Her husband’s kids were completely disinherited. We tried everything from precatory vs. mandatory to a constructive trust to give something to his kids. Nothing worked. To this day, I wish I had just done his will for free to prevent this catastrophe.”

“I had a client with $7 million estate approach me regarding planning. She balked at my fees and decided not to go forward. After she died unexpectedly, her daughter called me to help with the estate. Her mother’s six-page holographic document made specific bequests of all assets she had at the time; it named her then-best friend as executor, her then-church as beneficiary of her house, and her favorite employee (her mechanic) as trustee of the trust for the benefit of her granddaughter. Her plan did not include a residuary clause. Fast forward to date of her death, she and the best friend had ended their relationship on acrimonious terms, she was involved with a different church and inherited land from her parents; while her original will was properly witnessed and executed, she had attempted to take out the best friend in an unwitnessed codicil. It’s been five years and I think the legal fees have exceeded $150,000, the value of the business has decreased by 80%, and there is no end in sight.”

“I had a client recently who used an online financial / legal software system (that I will choose not to name, but let’s just say is widely known). They had contacted its customer support to specify they were in Massachusetts and therefore all the documents had to refer to specific state laws. The rep simply told them ‘all laws are the same’ and not to worry. And as instructed, they signed both a trust and a restatement. The trust outlined by this service gave the kids full power to declare the parents incompetent, and full discretion over distributions made to the parents. A predeceased child’s share would have gone to the other siblings, not grandchildren, which is what the clients ultimately wanted. Thankfully they caught this, and came back to me willing to pay me to draft a new plan properly before it was too late.”

No matter how good a do-it-yourself estate planning document may seem, it is no substitute for personalized advice. Estate planning is more than just document production; if not taken seriously, and handled correctly, it not only affects you, but generations to come.

Natalie A. Roberts, J.D., LL.M.

Natalie A. Roberts, J.D., LL.M.

Natalie Roberts is licensed to practice in both Florida and Minnesota. She is dedicated to providing honest, exceptional and deeply personalized legal counsel to her clients.

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