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Judge issues caution on forgoing lawyer and using a DIY will form

Do it yourself.

That seems to be the mantra applied to a wide universe of things these days, with so-called “DIY” primers, pamphlets, forms and documents available to consumers on topics that cover just about anything imaginable.

Including estate planning.

At first blush, that might strike a number of reasonable people in New York and elsewhere across the country as being more than a bit dicey, given the potential downside when things don’t go right in this financial planning area. Try to fix a plumbing problem with a Home Depot book and a pipe in your home might spring a leak. Try to reason with federal and state tax authorities after you made a huge error on an estate transfer and, well, you get the picture.

Notwithstanding the you’d-better-get-it-right aspects of estate planning (distribution of assets, tax avoidance, inheritances, specialized trusts, elder care, health care, gifting, beneficiary designations and scores of potentially other important considerations), many people across the country still try to chip away some initial costs and cut corners. One way they try to do so is by executing generic forms such as wills, trusts, health care directives, powers of attorney and other planning documents.

That can be a flat-out bad idea, since such documents do not account for the unique aspects of every estate plan.

Moreover, many such documents are not written with a particular state’s legal requirements in mind. Further still, some are simply written badly.

A recent court ruling on a will that was contested in Florida readily demonstrates how a DIY legal document can frustrate rather than promote the aim of a person executing it. In that case, a missing and essential clause left the disposition of certain assets unclear, which opened the will to legal challenge and resulted in two parties never mentioned in it receiving money from the testator’s estate.

A judge in the case called the result “a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance.”

Those words might reasonably give pause to any person about to buy a bookstore form or download an untailored boilerplate application that they intend to apply to a complex and important estate planning concern.

Source: ABA Journal, "Estate dispute caused by 'E-Z Legal Form' is a 'cautionary tale,' says justice,"Debra Cassens Weiss, April 3, 2014

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