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Do not cut corners with estate planning

We love a bargain, especially when it means not paying for things we think we can do ourselves. The ability to "do it yourself" is an admirable quality. When one has proper knowledge and training, the ability to do something one's self, instead of hiring it out, can be a real asset.

Now, with self-help books and computer technology literally at our fingertips, we have the opportunity to venture into do-it-yourself medicine, law, financial planning and other endeavors that have long been attended to by professionals.Should you bypass the professional and do your estate planning yourself? A young couple recently asked me, "Can we just do the work ourselves?" My response was, "Yes, you can, but you run a high risk that it won't be done properly or adequately."

What is the risk? The risk would be low if estate planning were like making cookies. But a good estate plan - including a revocable living trust, will and other important documents - does not come from cookie-cutter-type forms where one size and shape fits all.

There is more to it than buying a form that "looks like a good one" and then filling in the blanks. Estate planning needs and solutions vary from family to family.

Here is some food for thought. These ideas may help you conclude when it would be unsafe to do your own estate planning.

Software marketers proclaim that you can do your own legal work and avoid costly attorney's fees if you use their computer programs. You are told that you can prepare your own divorce, bankruptcy, corporation and, yes, even your own will and trust.

But computer software does not take the place of you consulting with a trained professional to analyze your specific family needs and circumstances in order to prescribe a solution that 1) complies with current federal and state law, and 2) is based in wisdom, common sense and practicality.

Just as good driving comes with age and experience (look at your insurance rates next time you insure a teenage driver), so does estate planning. The ability to run a software program does not qualify one to plan an estate, the results of which will be measured by legal compliance or non-compliance. and practicality.

Here are a few examples. Software programs sometimes are not specifically programmed for the state where you live. That means, that the laws of your state may not support the document your computer has printed.

Also, we know of situations where someone selected "option A"in a software program or on a form, thinking it the correct choice, when "option B" (or an option not even listed) would have been better.

Most people do not know that printed or typed wills have to meet certain legal requirements or they are not valid. How about this: an otherwise valid will may become invalid if the signer makes a handwritten change to the will after it was signed.

That seems strange, doesn't it? Nevertheless, because a printed or typed will can be altered more easily than a handwritten one, special legal precautions have to be met before such a document will be valid.

Here is a short list of some of the things a family cannot adequately deal with by using a pre-printed form or software program.

Divorce.

Remarriage.

Giving large sums of cash to children who are too young (or too immature) to handle it wisely.

Interfering with government benefits when children are disabled or have other special needs.

Setting up education funds with conditions that are fair and realistic.

Protecting a child's inheritance from a bad spouse or from creditors.

Adjusting an inheritance to account for loans or gifts made to a child that were not made to other children.

This is just a small sampling of the many specific circumstances that need experienced thought and drafting in order to assure that your wishes are carried out.

It takes know-how (not just a form) to assure that your assets really go to whom you want, when you want, and in the manner you want. Add to that the need to reduce income taxes, capital gains taxes, and estate taxes. Improperly planned estates can end up in court litigation for months or even years when, if done properly, such delays (and the costs of those delays) could have been avoided.

Worse than that, we recently saw an estate where - because of improper planning - a large portion of the assets went to relatives whom the decedent would never have passed anything to had she had a properly prepared will.

Even today in the technological age, the advice to not be "penny wise and pound foolish" is sound counsel.