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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Danger Of Do-It-Yourself Wills

The internet is a wonderful information sharing tool. The ability to easily research nearly any topic enabled me to fix my dishwasher and make other repairs that I would not have known how to do without the internet. Unfortunately, this access to information promotes people people falling into the trap of thinking it is simple to create vital estate planning documents themselves.

A great example of a document that seems simple to create is a Will. Recently I posted about the importance and urgency of getting a will, but a Do-It-Yourself Will (DIY) is not the way to go in all but the most simple situations. Even then, I urge you to think twice.

You might think you can never go wrong if you just strictly follow an online format or an example of a will from the internet, but many people have tried going this path and ended up risking their assets and dragging their family into a winding legal battle.


If you are thinking about what the dangers of DIY wills could be, here are a few real life examples. Author Deborah Jacobs called them “DIY horror stories” in her article The Case Against Do-It-Yourself Wills:

#1 Charles Kuralt, the CBS News correspondent and anchor

“Several weeks before he died in 1997, he penned a note to Patricia Elizabeth Shannon, his mistress for 29 years, promising to leave her 90 acres and a renovated schoolhouse near the Montana fishing retreat where they spent time together.

After Kuralt’s death, his family and Shannon spent six years in court fighting over whether this note was a valid amendment to the 1994 will that a lawyer had prepared, or simply a promise to revise the document–a promise that Kuralt never carried out. Without ruling on this issue, a Montana court awarded Shannon the $600,000 property but stuck Kuralt’s family with all the estate taxes.”

#2 Wealthy Texan

“A wealthy Texan who tried to save a few bucks wound up forfeiting his $3.5 million federal estate tax exemption. Using a form he copied from a library book, this guy cobbled together a will, leaving everything–a cool $7 million–to his wife. There was no estate tax due at that point because assets left to a citizen spouse (or to charity) generally aren’t subject to the tax. But anything left when she died, less her own exemption amount, could be taxable as part of her estate.

To fix the problem after the husband died, William Wollard, a lawyer with his own practice in McKinney, Texas, recommended the wife disclaim (or turn down) the entire $3.5 million exemption amount, allowing it to pass under state law, estate-tax free to the couple’s three adult sons. The assets she chose to disclaim were most of the ranch land the couple owned, and a large sum of cash.”

#3 Father Estranged From His Son

“Dad bought DIY will software from a big-box store and, following the prompts, listed his assets, but omitted some important ones: small numbers of shares of various phone company stocks that he had bought many years earlier. Those shares, which probably once seemed like tiddlywinks, had burgeoned in value because of mergers and stock splits and were worth more than $1.5 million, comprising most of Dad’s estate, by the time he died.

Unfortunately, the DIY will did not include what’s called a residuary clause–indicating how to distribute what is left after estate expenses, creditors and taxes have been paid and gifts of specific items or sums of money have been satisfied. So guess what happened? The stocks passed according to the law of intestacy, and the son, who the father wanted to disinherit, walked away with almost $400,000. To make matters worse, he had a substance abuse problem and blew through the money in less than a year."


I could go on with many more examples, but the point is that a DIY will is often a disaster waiting to happen. An online DIY will package or a library template cannot and will never be able to properly replace having an experienced legal expert to set up your will and other critical estate planning documents.

If the people in the stories above had only hired a lawyer, they could have had better estate planning that would have honored their wishes and made it easier to their family and loved ones.

Should having a DIY will ever cross your mind, remember that Timothy E. Kalamaros, a lawyer with his own practice in South Bend, Ind. Compared DIY wills to “pulling your own tooth with a pair of pliers instead of going to the dentist.” Yikes!

Golowin Legal, LLC helps create Wills and comprehensive Estate Plans in Columbus, Dublin, Upper Arlington, Hilliard and the central Ohio area. If you or a loved one needs assistance in setting up will or trust, call us at (614) 453 5208 today. Visit our website for more information on Wills and Estate Planning Documents.


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