It used to be that I hated telling people at family gatherings that I was an estate planning attorney. “Why would you ever choose to do that? Why, I can just go to LegalZoom [fill in the blank with whatever the purveyor of forms for that month was] and do it myself! I thought you were much to smart to just be a paper pusher.”
I hated the my sense that I had to defend myself and my chosen field of practice. But these days, because I really do want to help people (even my relatives), I relish these questions. I tell people that in the same way that a Boeing engineer is smart enough to do brain surgery does not mean that that would be a safe way to save money, do-it-yourself kits to write your own will or even your own power of attorney is looking for trouble. One wrong word, one missing signature, or one procedure not followed to the letter of the law can partially or completely invalidate a Last Will and Testament, Revocable Living Trust, Advance Medical Directive, Living Will, or Durable Power of Attorney. This is one place where “just a technicality” can really cause problems.
Think of attorney fees as an investment, not an expense. Think of the service and the protections provided, most important at the outset, the peace of mind that it’s been done correctly.
Still, here are 3 simple things you can do to minimize the legal costs of setting up and maintaining your estate plan:
1. Do your homework: An experienced and client-friendly estate planning attorney, gives you homework—questionnaires and forms— before you meet. Fill them in as completely as you can. It is the best way to understand what you own, what you owe, who you would like to inherit what, and who should be in charge of managing your estate if you become mentally incapacitated or when you die.
2. Long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting: While an estate plan is not a mini-skirt, this 1960s cliche still applies. Think about what you want and what your concerns are. Your estate plan is as complicated as you make it. If you want to spend time and money setting out extremely detailed provisions for each of your children, it can be done, but it will be an expensive plan at least initially. On the other hand, merely saying that everything is to be divided equally may not work if one of your children has special needs, another has had several marriages and another has a problem with alcohol or drugs.
3. Join Your Attorney’s Estate Plan Maintenance Program – Some estate planning attorneys offer a regular estate plan tune-up for their clients at a reasonable fee. This program will force you to think about your estate plan once a year or every few years depending on the terms of the attorney’s maintenance program. Maintenance programs help you keep your estate plan current with changes in the law, your attorney’s experiences, and your life, family, goals, and assets. Estate plans only work if they’re up to date.