My spouse and I have resolved to get our estate planning started this year. I have some friends who did it on their own, and I’m wondering if I can too or if I should use a lawyer.
When deciding whether to hire an estate planning lawyer, keep in mind that estate planning is more than simply filling out a form. “Estate planning includes customizing terms of a will or trust to carry out your individual wishes and desires. It also includes discussions to be sure beneficiary designations are coordinated with the terms of your will or trust. In addition, it includes preparing documents to make sure a trusted person has the authority to pay bills and handle finances for you in the event of disability,” says Greg Bonney.
When you’re younger and just getting started, filling out forms on your own may work, says Bonney. However, he adds, “Once you start having kids and accumulating wealth, if you want to fill out [generic] forms, at least spend a half hour with a lawyer in the place you live, making sure the form does what you want it to do and that your objectives will be met.”
Bonney says he has seen some huge mistakes made by people when filling out forms, with unintended consequences. For example, he was contacted by one family after their father’s death to review his “will.” Unfortunately, the document was not a valid will in Wisconsin because the man’s signature was notarized but not witnessed by two disinterested witnesses as required.
In another situation, a mother of seven children passed away leaving a will that she prepared herself after sending away for a “will kit.” She listed her oldest son as the person to receive her assets. She interpreted the form to mean she was giving the assets to her one son as the executor to distribute the assets to her children equally. Instead, the oldest son was the sole recipient of her assets and refused to share with his siblings as his mother had intended. As this scenario points out, one missed step or vague phrase can change the entire outcome of a will or trust.
Bonney suggests taking time to establish a relationship with an attorney to discuss your goals and objectives and to work together to draft documents to carry out those goals through the long term. Executor and trustee rights and responsibilities, specified beneficiaries and charitable intentions are all factors that require careful discussion and coordination. It will be worth the peace of mind.
Information provided by estate planning attorney Greg Bonney of Johns, Flaherty & Collins, SC. For an estate planning lawyer in La Crosse, call him at 608-784-5678.