Do You Need a Lawyer for Your Estate Plan?
If you're thinking about estate planning you may be wondering if you need a lawyer for your estate plan. While it isn't required, we do recommend it.
People often ask if they really need to use an attorney to develop their estate plan or handle their probate. In the past, the answer to this question would have been an immediate yes; lawyers knew the law and nobody else had a clue. More to the point, nobody else wanted to have a clue. Simply put, there were areas of life―law and medicine, to name two―that the average person was content to leave to the professionals.
Not so today, of course. We like to feel self-directed and in control, as the explosion of self-helps books and online resources can attest. We google our symptoms and then go to the doctor, and if the doctor’s diagnosis doesn’t agree with our own, we’re suspicious. Does the doctor know what he’s doing? Is he just ordering tests for the sake of lining his pockets? What makes him so smart, anyway?
It’s the same thing with law, and relevant to this conversation, estate planning. Somewhere along the way someone realized that Wills and trusts were just documents, words on paper, and it didn’t take a mystic to get the right words onto the paper. As self-help resources became more sophisticated and easily accessible, many people decided to do the job themselves. And that’s okay―sometimes. But sometimes it’s not, and it can be difficult to decide which camp you fall into.
Factors in Deciding Whether to Use an Estate Planning Lawyer
So do you need a lawyer for your estate plan or not? I can’t tell you, but I can give you some things to think about. I would strongly suggest contacting an attorney if any of these situations apply to you:
- Your gross estate (everything you own) is worth a significant amount. What constitutes “significant?” For estate tax purposes, that amount has changed over time and currently is more or less impossible to predict. To be on the safe side, I would talk to an attorney for any gross estate (note: that’s gross estate, not the net worth figure we have been referencing) over $2 million, even if you have no complications that would raise legal issues.
- You own a business. You need to think about what should happen to the business after you’re gone―the sale of your interest to partners or to an outside entity, transfer to your spouse or children, etc.―and a lawyer is well-suited to work you through those issues.
- You have special family circumstances. No family is “normal” (at least none that I’ve ever seen), but some are more functional than others. If you have a blended family from multiple marriages, a disabled child, contentious relationships, or responsibility (legal or moral) for a non-family member, you should talk to a lawyer.
- You are in a long-term unmarried relationship. Unmarried couples need to be particularly careful to have solid legal documents in place that reflect their wishes, since default laws do not recognize their relationship. An attorney is best able to implement workarounds to make sure that your intentions are honored, both before and after death.
Even if you don’t necessarily need a lawyer for your estate plan, you may want one. Lawyers are good for more than dotting Is and crossing Ts. Some additional benefits to consider:
- Your estate plan will get done. Face it, if you leave it to your own motivation, you may never finish your documents. Engaging a lawyer brings someone else into the picture, and that someone else will hold you accountable for doing your part in moving the process along. For some people, this is the only way to ensure that the plan is completed.
- Apparent authority. A Will prepared by an attorney carries more weight than one prepared by a layman―not necessarily legally, but in the eyes of the public. If you have any inkling at all that someone may challenge your intentions, it’s a good idea to have an attorney behind your documents from the very beginning.
- Someone to turn to. When you die, your family members will have enough to tackle without worrying about financial details and legal procedures. If you have an attorney who is familiar with you and your estate plan, one call from the family can set the legal procedures in motion.
Finally, before deciding to draft your own documents, consider this:
Do you really want to go the cheap route?
There are only two reasons I can think of to complete your estate plan yourself: No lawyers are available in your geographical location (almost never true in these days of virtual services) or you don’t want to pay a lawyer to draft your documents. Assuming it’s the latter, consider whether this is a good place to cut corners―these documents will control who makes decisions that directly impact you and everyone you care about, and ultimately will control what happens to everything you own. I’m a big fan of independent spirit, but is this the best place to flex your do-it-yourself muscles?
A basic estate plan is fairly inexpensive; a more comprehensive one will cost a little more. For this, you get access to a professional who will answer your questions, explain legal planning techniques that may save your beneficiaries money, and produce documents that (presumably) will do what you want and do it to the letter of the law. Sounds like a bargain to me.
Our firm handles estate planning and representation in probate matters throughout the state of New Mexico. You can contact us at (575) 339-2100 and we’ll be happy to discuss your case.
Author: Julie Kester is an estate planning attorney with New Mexico Legal Group. She is based in Las Cruces, but represents clients throughout the state of New Mexico in all areas of estate planning and probate.