Estate planning isn’t just for the top one percent. It’s for everyone who cares about what happens to themselves, their assets and their heirs. Once you accept this fact, the next step is to figure out how to create a plan.
Doing your own estate planning is tempting. After all, there’s the task of finding a trustworthy, affordable estate-planning attorney. It’s much easier and cheaper to buy some forms online and fill them out yourself. So why should you do things the more difficult and more expensive way? The following reasons should convince you of the value of having a pro set up a plan for you.
You Don’t Know What You’re Doing
Which is harder—finding a good attorney or spending a weekend or more trying to give yourself a crash course in wills, trusts and taxes? And what’s more effective—hiring an expert to do the work, or procrastinating weekend after weekend, month after month, because you really don’t want to do it? It’s time consuming and intimidating, and you’d rather sleep in, watch the game and go out to dinner.
Even if you are motivated enough and have adequate time to tackle the task yourself, chances are you don’t know all the forms that need to be filled out, which legal and financial structures might be best for your situation or how to finalize everything properly to make sure it’s enforceable.
So ask friends, coworkers and relatives if they can recommend an attorney. Visit the website of your state’s bar association to find one and check the attorney’s background (even if that person comes recommended). Create a short list of potential attorneys and visit their websites or call them to see if their experience and personality are the right fit for you and if you can afford their fees. Low- and moderate-income households may be eligible for free or reduced-cost legal aid.
You might think that all you need is a will, but you’re wrong. An estate-planning attorney can help you with a more comprehensive plan that includes a revocable living trust to keep your assets out of probate, a healthcare directive to guide your care if you become incapacitated, and a durable power of attorney or springing (conditional) power of attorney so someone can make decisions for you if you can’t.
You Don’t Want Your Heirs to Go to Court
If you use a will as the primary tool for handling your estate—or if you die without a will—your assets will go through probate. Probate is a court-supervised process that involves validating the deceased’s will, inventorying and appraising assets, paying debts and taxes, and distributing what’s left to heirs. Court fees and attorney fees further reduce the value of what’s left by up to 5 percent of the estate’s value.
The process usually takes a few months to a year or more, depending on whether assets must be liquidated, whether the will is contested and what the court’s caseload looks like. An estate-planning attorney can help you avoid probate by establishing a revocable living trust and titling assets properly. Probate can be time-consuming, expensive and stressful for your heirs and especially for your executor. Further, when your estate is subject to probate, your assets become a matter of public record.
You Don’t Want Your Heirs to Pay Unnecessary Taxes
Most estates won’t be subject to estate taxes, thanks to the $5.49 million estate tax exemption (as of 2017). Assets above that limit are subject to a 35 percent estate tax after the owner’s death. But if you are fortunate enough to face this problem, an estate-planning attorney can help you use a combination of charitable donations, tax-free annual gifts, life insurance and trusts to maximize your control over what happens to your money instead of letting the government decide.
Estate-tax exemptions and tax rates change over time. As recently as 2003, the exemption was just $1 million and the tax rate was 49 percent. If the exemption amount falls in the future, many more families may need to take estate-tax avoidance into account with the help of a professional.
Your Estate Plan Needs a Contingency Plan
It’s wise to have a backup plan for your ideal estate plan. If your preferred beneficiary predeceases you, for example, who will be next in line? It’s essential to name secondary beneficiaries and, if you want to be really prepared, tertiary beneficiaries. If your wife is your primary beneficiary, your only son is your secondary beneficiary and the three of you die in a car accident, who gets your money? Or, if you, your wife and the brother you’ve named as guardian of your children should all die before your kids turn 18, who will be responsible for them? These are just two of many scenarios that an estate-planning attorney can help you think through and formalize in legally enforceable documents.
Your Estate Plan Is Complicated
Perhaps you need to provide for pets, designate conditions for heirs to receive their inheritance, or provide for someone who is disabled, incapacitated or a minor child. Or maybe there is strife in your family that might cause challenges to your will after your death.
An estate-planning attorney knows which documents you need for your unique situation and how to execute them. He or she can make sure you name the people who should take care of your pets and provide money for their care (leaving money to your pets isn’t possible, since both are considered property). The attorney can set up the correct trusts to make sure your estate provides for your heirs most effectively when those heirs can’t manage money on their own. And he or she can make sure you prove your competency and get the correct people to witness and notarize your will so that a jilted relative can’t successfully claim that you made decisions about how to distribute your assets under undue influence or while not of sound mind.
The Benefits of Doing It Right
The main benefit of not doing your own estate planning is peace of mind—knowing you got it done right. The savings from doing it yourself won’t be worth it if your well-intentioned plans can’t legally be carried out. And you might personally experience the ramifications if you become unable to make healthcare or financial decisions while you’re still alive.
Of course, when you’re dead, you’ll never know what happens to your estate. But if you care about your heirs and about all the sacrifices you’ve made throughout your life to accumulate assets, you’ll want a sound plan to maximize them even after you’re gone. Your good planning now could help your children and grandchildren experience opportunities and achieve dreams that were never within your reach. It could save hundreds of homeless dogs and cats from euthanasia. Fund a scholarship. Build a baseball field for kids in a poor neighborhood.
You may never know if you make a mistake when you do your own estate planning, but the people and causes you care about may seriously miss out.