By Michael A. Dolan
“Do it yourself” has a long history in America, going back to isolated settlements in Colonial times. With the internet, you have easy access to overwhelming amounts of information. Articles and self-help videos give you guidance on how to do almost anything.
With all this information, you start to believe that anything a professional can do for you, you can now do for yourself. But you need more than a medical website to diagnose your illness, more than a pair of pliers and a YouTube video to act as your own dentist, and more than online forms to handle your own legal needs. The biggest tragedy of amateur advice and self-help solutions in the area of estate planning is that when the problems and issues are discovered, there is little or no opportunity to correct the mistakes.
Wherever you look, you can find free legal advice and assistance. When you buy your home, the real estate agent that shows you houses will also advise you about how to hold title so that you can avoid death probate. But the agent rarely knows the details of your family, or the underlying goals and objectives related to the outcome of your future estate plan.
When you buy life insurance, the agent will help you fill out “the box” in the application where you choose a beneficiary. But the choices contained in the beneficiary designation may not have anything to do with your true estate planning goals. This abundance of seemingly free legal advice almost always comes from people who have an interest in the outcome, and some are even trained to guide you to a preferred choice because it reduces costs for them in the future.
Relying on the internet or other amateur sources of information and advice may save money right now. But professionals invest years of their lives and substantial amounts of tuition money to learn their knowledge and skills, to learn how to analyze problems and to distinguish the simple from the complex. Professionals charge for their knowledge, their time, their independent perspective and the value of the result.
Taking these risks may reduce current costs and satisfy your sense of self-reliance, but this course of action has costs you should balance against the savings. Building your estate plan and making it work requires competent advice from your estate planning team, led by your attorney. A planning team will work hard to help you develop all your goals, and then your goals will drive the rest of the process.
Each choice that forms the design of your plan should come from and should advance these goals. Piecemeal planning costs you informed legal, financial and accounting advice that can save your loved ones many times what you spend — and reveal problems you never suspected.
John Ruskin, the famous British philosopher and art critic, wisely stated: “It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money, that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought is incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do.”
The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run; and if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better.”
If the wisdom of a 19th-century philosopher isn’t resonating with you, try the wisdom of Yogi Berra, a gentleman and well-known baseball philosopher: “If you think hiring a professional is expensive, try letting an amateur do it!”
If you prepare your own estate plan, you are going to like what you end up with. After all you created it. But when you forgo professional help, you may also pass up better solutions that will produce a much better outcome for your family. Consider spending a tiny portion of your family’s inheritance to make sure that it comes out right for them. Only your loved ones will know if you chose wisely.
Portions of this article are based upon an article originally written by the late Richard Boardman, J.D., of St. Louis and are used with permission, honor and respect.
Dolan, an attorney, is the principal of Dolan & Associates P.C. in Brighton and Westminster, Colo. Learn more on his website, estateplansthatwork.com.