I have given hundreds of seminars on topics of elder law, covering topics such as estate planning, Medicaid planning, estate administration. When you present that many seminars, you hear the same type of questions.
I just finished giving my bi-annual series of seminars at Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission. One attendee asked me a question that I have heard before and that I believe many people would like to ask: “Do I need a lawyer to draft my Will or can you draft your own Will?”
My standard answer to this question through the years has been: You can draft your own Will. You could also operate on yourself if you wanted, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
While my thoughts on the subject haven’t changed, I think they deserve a bit more explanation given the plethora of television ads that I see, advertising services that assist you with drafting legal documents for a minor fee. I am also cognizant that more-and-more people are computer savvy and there are a number of other programs, not advertised on television, on the internet. (Al Gore is getting older now, and he invented the internet, as you may know, so my target audience is getting more-and-more computer savvy.)
I went to law school for three years. My practice is concentrated in elder law. All I do, six days a week, is work on elder law issues—estate planning, Medicaid planning, estate administration, and guardianship issues. I have been practicing elder law for over ten years. I am a certified elder law attorney, meaning that I passed an examination with a very high failure rate, was recommended by five other attorneys who concentrate their practices in elder law, and work on a very high number of elder law files every year.
So, given the above, do I think you know as much about elder law as me? Quite honestly, for 99.99% of the people reading this article, the blunt answer is, no. Do I think you would know as much as I know aboutNew Jerseyelder law issues if you use a really spiffy computer program? Same answer, no. That’s the fact.
I may not be good at sports. I don’t know anything about engineering or medicine or plumbing, but I know a lot aboutNew Jerseyelder law issues.
I have met thousands of people with regard to their estate planning issues. I can tell you that almost universally, if left to their own devices, people would make mistakes if they drafted their own Will.
In order to draft a Will correctly, you must understand what happens after a person dies, how an estate is administered. I always tell people that a Will is not for you, it’s for your family. A Will is not even an effective document when you are alive.
So, even if a computer program prompts you with multiple options on a given issue, do you truly understand what those selections entail and how those selections work with other selections that you may have made? Do you understand how property even passes when you die?
Most people would think that is great because they are “avoiding probate,” but do you want to avoid probate inNew Jersey? InFloridaorCalifornia, you might want to avoid probate because probate is expensive in those states, but inNew Jersey, probate is very simply and inexpensive. Two of the most prominent TV personalities selling these do-it-yourself programs (Suze Orman and Robert Shapiro) are fromCalifornia. So, if you purchase those services, you may be getting advice for what is best inCalifornia.
Avoiding probate could cause disastrous results for your executor. It may leave your executor with bills that he cannot pay because he has no money. The executor may then have to sue the people who received your money as surviving joint account owners and under beneficiary designations.
So, do I think you can draft your own Will? Yes, but I still also think you can operate on yourself, and I wouldn’t advise either cost-saving technique.