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Should I Write My Own Will?

We live today in more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ world and that goes for legal topics as well. It started with an avalanche of self-help legal books. Then the law became much more ‘form driven’ whereby one plugs information into online forms and/or templates and prints them out for filing or files them online. Add to that the large number of websites with ‘free’ legal information and document preparation sites or those sites run by nameless paralegals, law students and self-appointed legal gurus and one would think attorneys are going the way of Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The reality is that you can attempt to handle some legal issues yourself without an attorney. The big question is, “should you author your own will or trust and other estate planning documents?”

Here are some considerations if you are contemplating doing it yourself:

Plain Vanilla: Most of the documents you find online or in books are very “one size fits all.” They have to be since they are appealing to a wide audience. Each person and family situation is unique. A generic document may not cover your individual situation.  For example, you may have a blended family or a special needs child. You may have been married before and want to insure that children from a previous marriage are not short changed. There may be reasons that you and your spouse should have separate wills. You may own property out of the country and/or out of state. There are many other considerations to think about. You may find yourself asking more questions than you ever realized. A mistake could be very costly for your loved ones.

Laws Vary: Laws are different from state to state and even county to county. California has a distinct set of probate laws which cover wills, their validity and their aftermath, as well as the entire process of probate. You should be aware if you write your own documents, that they conflict with certain laws or statutes. Further, other non-probate laws can intersect with your situation such as the community property law if you are married. There are even further considerations such as estate and gift taxes. Also, laws change and are updated often. It is very difficult for a layperson to stay on top of these developments.

In addition to drafting your own will or other estate documents such as trusts, powers of attorney and advance health care directives, they all have their own particular legal nuances. A mistake on one of them could complicate your situation unexpectedly if you use a generic form. For example, you may think it wise to have two co-agents on your power of attorney or advance health care directive but what if they later disagree. Then what?

The bottom line: Chances are you would not use an unskilled friend or neighbor to fix a leak in your house, you would call in a skilled plumber. By the same token you should consult with an estate planning attorney who is versed in state and federal law, the California Probate Code, tax law, etc., when it comes to estate planning documents.

A savvy estate planning lawyer will know what questions to ask and make the process run smoothly and mistake free. Whatever you think might be a ‘high’ fee for estate planning services pales by comparison to such legal procedures as extended probate, will contests, fighting over a hand written will, breach of trust actions, tax problems and a myriad of other troubles an attorney can head off.