The world of elder law is brimming with alternatives to the traditional attorney-client relationship. You’ve probably heard ads for services like Legal Zoom, offering simple, “D-I-Y” documents online for a low cost. Someone may have pointed you toward a website where you can print out a free Power of Attorney form. Just sign in front of a notary, and presto! Your estate plan is complete!
But you know the adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
In an increasingly do-it-yourself world, it can be tempting to pursue low-cost legal planning, especially if you feel your situation is “simple” or “straightforward.” But ask yourself: do you know what you don’t know? Do you know all the right questions to ask to avoid hidden consequences?
You wouldn’t sign yourself up for a surgical procedure without consulting a doctor first. So why would you create binding legal documents that have massive implications for your care, money management, and passing of family wealth without first consulting an attorney?
Most intelligent, well-educated laypeople are far out of their depth when it comes to legal planning. There are so many different options and contingencies that need to be considered to optimize the plan. And it’s not just about documents: it’s about understanding the big picture, not just of the individual, but also of their extended family. Is there another person in your family with special needs? Maybe, with the right language in the documents, family wealth can be managed to benefit that person as well as you. What will happen if your surrogate decision-makers become unavailable? Is there a contingency plan? Are there options that could help your heirs avoid the painful and time-consuming probate process after your death? What if the circumstances change and one of your beneficiaries becomes disabled after you create your Will? Can you structure your documents to prevent that person from losing disability benefits when they inherit from you?
Your and your family’s financial situation and care needs are also important components of your estate plan. What will happen if you or a spouse eventually needs long-term care, such as in-home caregivers or assistance provided in a facility? Do you know the typical cost of long-term care services in your area? Do you have the funds to pay for that care out of pocket? If not, what public benefits might be available? Are your legal documents and your assets structured so that you could qualify for those benefits if you needed them?
These questions represent just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Ideally, your estate plan should cover a number of contingencies that you may not ordinarily consider because you haven’t encountered those situations in your personal life. It should also be much more than just documents: it should represent a comprehensive analysis of your unique circumstances by an expert who will help you accomplish your short-term and long-term goals. The documents are just the end product of a much broader conversation.
It’s not always easy to set aside time or money for quality legal planning. On top of that, committing energy to difficult discussions about long-term care needs and end-of-life issues can be emotionally demanding. But it’s important to prioritize your legal planning to avoid more costly and stressful consequences for yourself or your family in the future. In the long run, proactive estate planning with proper legal advice will save you and your loved ones time, worry, and money.