In Need of Estate Planning? Beware DIY Websites

At some point in our lives, many of us will need to create an estate plan to manage our assets—including property, financial holdings, personal belongings—not just for our lifetimes, but for our loved ones after we’re gone. For the most part, there are three types of trust you may want to consider in your estate planning:

  • Living trust—A document concerning the management of your assets which can be amended or revoked at any time during your life.
  • Testamentary trust—A document based on language in a will, covering the management and distribution of your assets.
  • Irrevocable trust—A document with specific distribution provisions that cannot be revoked later on.<li>

The primary reason for a living trust is so you can manage and administer your assets both in life and death, without the intervention or supervision of a court of law. While a living trust in and of itself won’t eliminate estate taxes, it’s the best way to avoid the expensive, time-consuming (and often emotionally traumatic) process of probate.

DIY Websites May Fall Short

Because of the multitude of do-it-yourself (DIY) legal websites available these days, it’s tempting to consider this inexpensive alternative to hiring an attorney or law service that specializes in this area. We urge people to be very cautious when contemplating cheapening out on estate planning.

As we’ve noted in a previous blog post about DIY legal websites, by using such a site, you may fall short of your estate planning goals. Why?

  • Documents provided on these sites may or may not have been prepared by a qualified California attorney.
  • Since California law is subject to change from time to time, these documents may not have been sufficiently updated to meet current legal requirements.
  • Most of these sites don’t offer advice on what documents you need to complete your estate planning goals.</li>

Yes, many DIY legal sites are less expensive than hiring an attorney or even a low-cost service. But remember—you usually get what you pay for.

The vast majority of inquiries for estate planning services with our office start with the request for a will. However, a will serves primarily for use in probate (e.g. guardianship, simple distribution of assets). When you have a will without a trust, your instructions on how to settle your estate has to be approved by a court. The executor of your estate must submit the will to
the court and have it officially recognized before your last wishes can be carried out.

Living trusts and wills can complement each other, such as when a living trust is drafted together with what’s commonly called a “pour-over will.” Such a will is designed to protect any assets which were either forgotten when creating a living trust or left out for some reason. The pour-over will ensures that these assets become part of the living trust upon the individual’s death. It “pours over” all assets that failed to be originally placed in the trust and which now can be distributed as originally intended in the trust.

In California, people who want to pass real estate on to their beneficiaries should look into getting a living trust. Currently, if the value of all the property of your estate is less than $150,000, simplified probate procedures, and/or affidavits to collect your assets without any court proceedings may be available to your beneficiaries. However, if you believe your estate will be
more than that threshold at your death, or if you want to try to ensure your estate passes to your beneficiaries as smoothly as possible, you should contact an estate planning attorney about obtaining a trust.

Have questions or need assistance with your estate plan? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, DUIs and landlord/tenant disputes.

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