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5 Reasons Why DIY Estate Planning Can be a Big Mistake

The do-it-yourself ethos is one we heartily applaud. Most services provided by attorneys are not cheap, so the notion of taking care of certain things on your own to save a few bucks is appealing. But sometimes the DIY route can wind up costing you a lot more in the end. Here are 5 reasons why you should put down your DIY pen—and pick up the phone.

#1 You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

We humans are not as good as we think at identifying the gaps in our knowledge. In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know. In fact, you will never know what you don’t know. There will always be gaps in your knowledge, places where you are clueless as to your ignorance. It’s one thing to take on a seemingly straightforward home improvement project – like removing a wall. Demo work may look fun when you're watching home makeover shows, but in real life, there’s wiring, gas lines, and pipes behind that drywall—and one wrong move can turn an easy job into a pricey, protracted one. This is especially true when it comes to virtually all aspects of estate planning. There are probate, death tax, divorce, life changes, income tax, asset protection and control issues to deal with. Moreover, we’re talking about your hard-earned life savings and caring for your family. These are big, important things. Even if you think your situation is not complicated, it’s best to leave the planning to the pros.

#2 Putting Someone’s Name on an Account or Deed

For people looking to avoid the costs and delays of probate, this is a frequently used technique. It may seem like a simple solution, but it has many pitfalls. You are giving ownership of the asset to that joint account or deed owner from the time you make the joint designation. That means the asset is exposed to creditors of or judgments entered against the co-owner. You can no longer do with the asset as you desire without the co-owner’s consent. What happens if the co-owner gets divorced? Is sued for a debt? Your assets in that account are at risk. If the co-owner passes away during your lifetime, you’ll literally pay inheritance tax on your own money. The money saved by avoiding probate may be completely eclipsed by increased capital gains tax in the case of real estate. There are better ways to avoid the costs and delays of probate.

#3 Beneficiary Form Boo-Boos

If many of your accounts can be transferred at death by beneficiary forms, you many think “mission accomplished” on your DIY estate plan. It is true that beneficiary designations are part of an effective estate planning strategy. But we’ve seen all too many beneficiary form boo-boos that lead to big problems and expense. The most obvious problem is not completing or partially completing the beneficiary forms. If you do not complete the forms or if your designated beneficiary predeceases you and you have no contingency plan, your assets are going to pass according to your financial institution’s default rules. That usually means the assets will pass to your estate and necessitate a probate proceeding to convey these assets to your family.

Naming minors as beneficiaries is another frequent problem. Minors are not legally competent to receive bequests in their own name. It will be necessary to have a court proceeding to name someone as guardian or trustee to hold the money left to a minor until they are at least 18 years old. These proceedings are expensive, time consuming and you will have given up your right to name the person to serve as guardian.

Retirement accounts present particular challenges. If these are paid to your estate due to a defective beneficiary form designation, income tax will be payable on the assets right away vs. being deferred for a number of years. You also lose the right to limit a beneficiary’s access to the money for up to ten years.

Finally if you’re like most people, you’ve not looked at your beneficiary forms for a long time. Life brings changes and it’s very common that people forget to update beneficiary designations to keep up with those changes. A predeceased child, a beneficiary who becomes incapacitated or has substance abuse problems are among the many reasons why constantly reviewing beneficiary forms is crucial.

#4 Special Needs Beneficiaries

DIY planning is especially not a good fit if you have a special needs person in your family as a beneficiary. These family members often have government benefits that have a resource eligibility component. This means that their eligibility for those benefits is conditioned upon the amount of assets that they own. By naming a special needs person as a beneficiary, you may cause them to own more assets than they can own and remain eligible for benefits. They’ll need to spend down the assets you leave them and go through the reapplication process for benefits. That’s a waste of your assets and causes a lot of disruption in the life of your special needs family member and whomever is helping them. There are better ways to include them in your estate plan without disrupting their eligibility for government benefits.

#5 Second Marriages

People who plan to remarry or who already are in a second marriage can face complex estate planning challenges. The individuals usually bring their own assets into the marriage. They may also have children from prior marriages whose inheritances they wish to protect. The DIY options simply are not a good fit for these situations. There is no beneficiary form that will require your surviving spouse to convey your assets to your children. The survivor between you and your spouse will ultimately get to decide who gets your life savings after your spouse dies. And if your spouse becomes incapacitated, maybe it’s their children who make those decisions.

The experienced estate planning attorneys at Fiffik Law Group can help you achieve your estate planning goals. Taking care of your family in a tax and cost-efficient manner is something we’ve helped thousands of clients accomplish. We can help you too. Contact us to schedule a one-on-one consult with one of our attorneys.


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