Estate planning—should you do it yourself?

Posted by on Jul 8, 2014

Estate planning—should you do it yourself?

I like do-it-yourself projects as much as the next person.

When it comes to professional services, such as legal work (or medical, dental, automobile, tax preparation and on and on) I go to people who know what they’re doing in these areas.

Regina attended one of my public talks and then called me for an appointment to review her existing estate planning documents.

When she got to my office, it turned out that she did not want to pay for services to have an attorney prepare her documents. She was convinced that this was all a big do-it-yourself project.

She showed me her own handiwork in producing a power of attorney document. She wanted to know what I thought of it. I told her point blank that I doubted whether very many “third party institutions”—banks, title companies and the like—would honor this set of pages. She had taken it from the Internet. It said it was done under the laws of the State of Ohio! It did not have the kind of detailed, explicit language a bank or title company wants to see on such a document. It was wholly inadequate.

Regina had heard me say at my talk that if someone dies in California owning $150,000 or more worth of assets that are not in a trust or held with designated beneficiaries, a lengthy, expensive probate proceeding will be required.

Regina didn’t want to hear that. She claimed I had said that someone like her shouldn’t have a trust when I had actually said the opposite. Regina owns a home and multiple rental properties. Together they will end up in a probate proceeding that will cost tens of thousands of dollars in probate fees for an attorney plus court costs.

Regina pulled out a “Will” she had made for herself. In it were all sorts of extraneous “notes” about how she didn’t want to leave anything to her brother or nephews. She listed which friend should inherit which specific property and what they were to do with each property after they got it. She named no contingent beneficiaries in case one of the friends were to die before her. After the list of specific properties, the Will said nothing about who would inherit the “residue” of her estate, i.e. anything not specifically accounted for. Without naming a residuary beneficiary, that “residue” would end up passing by the laws of intestacy, to the very same brother she wants to exclude. It was a real mess.

Regina wanted me to give my approval for the documents she had cobbled together. I told her I couldn’t. I gave her an estimate of how much probate would cost based on the list of properties she had.

“Unless you don’t care if the beneficiaries have to shoulder the probate costs, you need a trust,” I said. “You’re just saying that because you’re a lawyer!” she complained. “Yes,” I said, “you’ve come in for a legal consultation, and so I am saying these things because I’m a lawyer.”

She didn’t want to hear my advice. She said explicitly that she would not pay for a lawyer to do her estate planning documents. I ended the conversation and didn’t charge her for my time. She got what she wanted: she didn’t pay a lawyer.

Not yet. If she proceeds to not have a proper estate plan, someone’s going to “pay for a lawyer.” Without a legitimate power of attorney document, if Regina becomes incapacitated and needs someone to manage her finances, that someone is going to have to hire a lawyer to go to court to establish a conservatorship. That will eat up many thousands of Regina’s dollars, whether she’s mentally competent enough to know it or not.

Without a proper trust, her estate will wind up in probate court, and someone’s going to want to pay a lawyer to navigate that long process. It will cost a bundle. Doing a trust to avoid probate is almost always a bargain.

Oh, and given that Regina’s wacky Will makes it unclear who will inherit any asset not specifically listed, those things would pass to her brother by default, except that the verbiage in her Will sort of, kind of disinherits him. The words are murky enough that he might pay a lawyer to challenge Regina’s will in court.

Often in life, we get what we pay for. I don’t mean that in a tit-for-tat sense. Resentment and unwillingness to compensate professionals for their time and knowledge is not a win for the person doing the resenting. In a complex world, it’s smart to get help.


Recently I gave a talk on estate planning for a local church. It was a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in the east bay, and yet the talk was very well attended, and the audience was very engaged with the subject. If you have a community group with more than ten people who would like to have me give an educational talk about estate planning, please get in touch with me about that.