BUYER BEWARE: DO-IT-YOURSELF ESTATE PLANNING IS RISKY
LegalZoom is a do-it-yourself (DIY) online platform that provides a cheaper alternative to legal tasks than heading to a law firm. Lured by saving money and the thought that forms governing any legal process are all the same, many clients turn to these automated legal services and relinquish all contact with an attorney.
Seems easy enough, right? But if you’re a layperson filling out these forms, it’s also equally easy to miss a step. That omission could interfere with the proper legal process that’s required at the time a form is called into play. What’s more, in the end, you may have to pony up more money than you originally saved when you were preparing the document.
When you work with one of our Phelan, Frantz, Ohlig, & Wegbreit attorneys, it’s never just about the service or form you need. We create your plan based upon your unique requirements. Estate planning issues are never cookie cutter. For example, the Power of Attorney for a collegebound youngster serves a far different purpose than the language of a 70-year-old who requires a POA.
In the case of the young adult about to go off to college, the primary concern is that their parents have a HIPAA release. This is the ability to get and share medical information with the health care professionals who are caring for their youngster. Without the proper wording of a POA, protections from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) could prevent these important conversations from taking place.
Similarly, a younger client who may have digital assets that run the gamut from social media accounts to financial Bitcoin holdings require specific language put into their POA. That language isn’t going to exist on LegalZoom, but it’s language we’ve crafted because we’ve served clients with situations like this.
Beyond the failure to fully address unique situations, downloaded POA forms often neglect to name a successor to serve as POA. They’ll name one person. And if that appointee is not available to act, the form becomes completely useless. When you retain the services of an estate attorney, you’re not just retaining an attorney to create a document and have you sign it. You’re retaining an estate attorney who has experience in these matters and is able to listen to your needs and story and craft a document most appropriate for you.
Variances State to State
Requirements for documents also differ state-to-state, even in bordering states. In New York, for example, the agent must sign the document. In New Jersey, that is not a requirement. New York requires 2 witnesses; New Jersey only 1. Downloading something from LegalZoom does not necessarily take these variances into account. This issue can become even more complicated if you have more than 1 home in different states.
To make matters even more difficult, laws are not static. They constantly change because of new laws and new statutes. To best advise their clients, lawyers keep up with these changes.
It’s Not Better Late Than Never
It’s not uncommon for clients to seek out an attorney to unravel situations that have arisen when an online document is put to the test…and flunks. One family whose dad was sick was rightly focused on getting their dad the palliative care he needed. Understandably, the entire family was emotionally spent both from worry and from developing a care plan. One of the adult children headed to LegalZoom and downloaded a basic Will. The Will dictated that everything would go to the decedent’s wife. If she died first, everything would go to the couple’s four children. The document also appointed the oldest child as Executor.
As it turned out, the dad lived a lot longer than anybody anticipated. The mom actually ended up dying beforehand which meant that everything was passed on to the four children as the LegalZoom Will dictated. Problem was, there were a couple of important things missing:
- The family didn’t have the important “What if” conversation about what would happen if one of the children predeceased the father. One of them—the oldest one, no less—did. This brought up the further question about who would be the new Executor and whether the remaining siblings wanted any assets to go to the deceased sibling’s children. There was considerable disagreement among the siblings.
- While the Will did appoint the oldest child to be the Executor, it didn’t include a provision to appoint a secondary Executor if the first was not available to serve. It also did not waive the surety bond requirement. In the case of estate administration, the surety bond protects the beneficiaries and creditors of the estate against improper distribution of assets by the Executor. The bond guarantees that the Executor will distribute the estate’s assets according to the Will or a court judgment. In this particular case, the court required the family to get a bond. The new Executor had creditor issues, so the premium for the surety bond ended up being $6000 a year.
Had this family sought legal counsel when they prepared a Will, they would have spent far less money and encountered less, if any, problem resolving the above issues. If they’d come to our firm, we would have had the conversation with them about the possibility of a child predeceasing the father. We would also have included language waiving the bond requirement. We would waive the bond because our clients are typically appointing their children as executors and these are appointees they trust. They’re not concerned that any nefarious action will take place.
If you do decide to use LegalZoom, know the risks you’re taking. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. And remember. Your mistakes will not come to light until you become incapacitated or die. The people who are left to deal with these mistakes are your loved ones, the individuals you set out to protect in the first place.
At Phelan, Frantz, Ohlig, & Wegbreit, LLC, you can be assured we will cover all the bases in helping you develop your estate plan. We use the knowledge we’ve acquired in our years of schooling and practice to counsel you on the best ways to protect and take care of your family.
Call us at 908-232-2244 to make sure you craft an estate plan that will fully preserve and distribute your assets in accordance with your wishes and in the manner your loved ones deserve.
USING A REVOCABLE TRUST TO PASS ON REAL ESTATE TO YOUR CHILDREN
Act Now to Prevent the Future Hassles of Out-of-State Probate
The concern is a common one: “I want to make it simple for my kids,” say aging parents of adult children. “I don’t want them to experience stress when the time comes to settle my estate.”
Estate attorneys have solutions to honor these wishes. These solutions are, in fact, quite simple to execute, provided they’re completed as part of your estate planning. Failing to attend to these matters during your lifetime may mean you are bequeathing not only an inheritance to your children, but also a probate nightmare, particularly if you own property in more than one state.
Jumping Through the Hoops of Probate in Several States
Many of our clients have a primary residence in New Jersey and own vacation homes or rental properties in other states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, or New York. If the goal is to pass these properties on to future generations in the simplest way possible, the focus should be on ways to avoid probate in more than one state.
States are possessive of real property located within their borders. Accordingly, the appointment of an executor in New Jersey is of little consequence outside of New Jersey. When it comes to the transfer of real property inside their state, individual states reserve the right to make their own determination as to who should be appointed pursuant to their state’s unique rules. And while New Jersey has a relatively straightforward probate process, other states do not. Going through probate in states like Florida and New York, for example, takes considerable time and money. Thus, effective estate planning that for individuals who own multiple properties often requires the implementation of a plan that helps families avoid having to institute probate actions in multiple states.
Transferring Property Into a Revocable Trust: Smart Estate Planning and Flexibility
There are various estate planning tools that can provide you with peace of mind knowing that your assets will be transferred seamlessly to your heirs. One such tool, a revocable trust, also known as a living trust, has multiple features that can benefit you during your lifetime and your heirs when it comes time to settle your estate. A revocable trust provides a prearranged mechanism that will ensure the continued management and preservation of your assets, should you become disabled. It can also set forth all of the dispositive provisions of your estate plan and detail how you want your assets to be disbursed. In addition, a trust protects your privacy and the privacy of your beneficiaries because unlike a Last Will and Testament, which is a publicly available document once probated, a trust is available only to the impacted beneficiaries.
Finally, transferring your various properties into a revocable trust will help your family avoid the nightmare of multiple probate actions and the corresponding costs of different lawyers in different states. Because you are the trustee of your living trust, you still have full authority with respect to how the property is used and managed during your lifetime and all income tax consequences are reported on your personal income tax return.
The creators or “grantors” of the trust, which can be either a single individual or a couple, can establish the terms that will dictate what happens to assets held in trust upon their death. To this end, successor trustees also are named by the trust, which ensures that the grantors’ designated agents have automatic authority to sell, transfer, and manage the property upon the grantors’ death without the need to seek court appointment. In short, when properties are owned or held by the trust, there is no need to probate a Will, whether the property is held in New Jersey or another state.
Further, revocable trusts offer a degree of flexibility. For instance, if you become incapacitated or ill during your lifetime, the successor trustee can step up to assist and run things, offering a seamless transition. In addition, other assets, such as bank or brokerage accounts, can be retitled into the trust. Many financial institutions prefer to manage assets held in this manner as it allows them to respond quicker in emergent situations and serve clients more nimbly than they would be able to if they had to wait for the production of a power of attorney or a court appointed guardian to provide instructions.
Additional Considerations for Rental Properties: Limited Liability Companies
We frequently counsel clients who have rental properties to place such property into a limited liability company (LLC). Property ownership, especially ownership of rental property, comes with the risk of liability from injuries that take place while on the property, leaving you and your assets vulnerable to claims and/or exposing you and your assets to the risk of lawsuits. If your property is held in an LLC, and it is the only asset in the LLC, your liability is limited to that property, and your other assets are shielded from judgment if the formality of the LLC is honored and assets are kept separate.
Holding properties in trust and an LLC are not mutually exclusive planning techniques. Instead, the property can be placed in an LLC for liability reasons and the revocable trust established for estate planning purposes can serve as the sole member of the LLC. In other words, the trustees hold the LLC and the LLC holds the property. Although the structure is akin to the Russian stacking dolls, it makes sense for a multitude of reasons.
In either case, the trust assets, in this case the property, can easily pass on to your heirs. The trust itself may also continue with the trust assets managed and payments continued to the trust’s beneficiaries. What’s more, if your heirs decide to sell the property, they can do so easily and earn and retain money for that sale.
Life Happens: Realtime Action to Prevent Future Hassles
It’s important to remember that taking action now will prevent issues from complicating your children’s lives in the future. At Phelan, Frantz, Ohlig & Wegbreit, we are here to help you pass your property on to your beneficiaries easily and cost-effectively.
Call us at (908) 232-2244 to develop an estate plan that will give you the peace of mind you need today, knowing your heirs will be well-protected tomorrow.
WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR ESTATE PLAN, DIY JUST WON’T DO
The do-it-yourself mentality has become an integral part of many areas that inform our lives. Thanks to the Internet and even YouTube, consumers now have all the tools and how-to’s they need to create anything from simple arts and craft gifts, to more upscale inspirations like DIY fashion, printed merchandise or any number of home remodeling projects. This DIY mentality has even expanded to the potentially intricate, increasingly personal and definitely legal task of estate planning and the execution of your Will. Most often undertaken to save money, even the “simplest” DIY Wills may contain pitfalls that end up costing families large amounts of grief or money.
Seen it all
Mixing online programs like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer and Quicken WillMaker Plus to lay down the groundwork that will protect and provide for loved ones after you’re gone in the hopes of saving time and money in the here and now can be a recipe for disaster. Most trust and estate lawyers likely will tell you that choosing these options for estate planning documents may be a real disservice to your heirs.
Estate lawyers should know. They’ve seen it all when it’s come to unraveling the intended bequests of DIY Wills that were erroneously drafted. When a person has passed there’s literally no resource available to clarify his or her intent. Some people will tell you a DIY Will is better than no Will at all. But a bad DIY Will inappropriately and incompletely done does NOT trump no Will status. If you shortchange the process on the front end, there can be significant legal costs incurred after death either due to errors in the execution of the Will or lack of clarity about dispositive wishes.
False sense of security
In fact, DIY estate planning may give benefactors a false sense of security even if you have only modest assets and plan to draft the “simplest of wills”—a term with which legal professionals take issue. There is no such thing as a “simple will.” First, every individual’s circumstances are unique with particular family complexities that impact to whom and how assets should pass. Second, there are so many assets that pass outside an estate such as insurance policies, 401(k)’s and IRA’s to name a few that there must be careful coordination between probate (the Will) and non-probate or beneficiary assets. It’s imperative that you have a full understanding of what will happen with your assets when you die—which is why a conversation with a lawyer is critical.
With DIY sites, there’s limited, if any, professional guidance. Some sites do provide some attorney assistance, but you don’t get to choose the person with whom you’re working or have any sense of their background with trusts and estate law. For a sensitive subject like the financial protection of your loved ones, the client experience matters and so does interaction with a professional who knows you and understands your family situation.
You don’t know what you don’t know
The lack of appropriate guidance can lead to ignorance, which is a real deficit to DIY planning. Choosing a DIY option for your estate planning is like looking for cures to your ailments on WebMD—most individuals have no real idea what they need when it comes to protecting themselves and their loved ones. For example, every state has unique rules, particularly when it comes to estate/inheritance or “death” taxes. None of this is contemplated in a DIY will. Some sites may not offer the right tools for state-to-state differentiation. Others may offer graded packages and you may inadvertently or for cost reasons choose the wrong one.
Then, too, DIY sites do not lend themselves to the intricacies and/or depth of complex family and financial situations such as blended families, stepchildren and the like.
Plus, a host of other issues can unknowingly arise when upon death, your Will is passed on to the surrogate or probate court. The surrogate court oversees matters of probate, the administration of estates and the process of distributing the decedent’s assets to the proper beneficiaries. To name some of the most common problems that can arise with DIY Wills at this time:
- A lack of proper witnessing or notarization when signing your Will to make it legal
- The chance that you will make innocent errors and therefore provide contradictory instruction involving your bequests
- Poor, if any, coordination between probate and non-probate or beneficiary designated assets
Where’s the Will?
Another wrinkle that occurs with DIY Wills is when the individuals who take on the responsibility of executing their own Wills forget or simply don’t let anyone know where their Will is located. If the original Will can’t be located, it’s as good as dying without a Will.
It’s also important to remember that your Will is a living, breathing document. This means it must be reviewed regularly and revised with changing life situations like marriage, childbirth, inheritance, etc. Choosing the DIY route to estate planning just may make an individual less aware or inclined to make regular reviews and subsequent revisions.
Covering All the Bases
But when you work with an estate attorney, you have an accountability partner who can help you stay on top of these very important matters—from the sometimes uneasy but serious and important planning process, to choosing the right fiduciaries, to reviewing your Will at least at five-year intervals, down to keeping the original document in safekeeping. Then, when the inevitable time comes for your loved ones to inherit and carry on your legacy, everything will be in order.
When it comes to providing for the precious people in your life, you will surely want nothing less than that.
At Phelan, Frantz & Ohlig, LLC, we take our responsibility to provide families with conscientious estate planning very seriously. Please contact us if we can be of assistance to you in developing the appropriate estate plan for your family.