I wrote the book on Minnesota probate.

The do-it-yourself disorderly disaster

On Behalf of | Apr 23, 2019 | Estate Planning |

Corporate owners in many occupations proudly display the fruits of their business acumen. The auto dealership owner drives a Ford Shelby. The dentist dazzles his friends with a bright, white smile. The jeweler’s wife wears a 6-carat flawless diamond wedding ring. 

Some professionals, such as brain surgeons, do not perform their own brain surgery. They recruit a team of esteemed colleagues to do the honors. Famous film stars use stunt doubles. A judge hires an experienced probate attorney to draw up his estate plan. 

Pennywise, pound foolish

As the old saying goes, some people take pride in saving pennies when, if they had spent a little more, they could have avoided losing pounds (a British word similar to the American dollar). Websites urge thrifty people to save thousands in attorney fees with cheap, online legal forms. Why not use a form to file a divorce or make a do-it-yourself will? 

It may seem that saving dollars is a worthy goal when a person can spend pennies instead. Sometimes, however, people seem surprised—and unhappy–when they bump up against the adage, “You get what you pay for.” 

The case of the Supreme Court judge

In one of the more astounding “you can’t make this stuff up” events, a Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court hung up his robes and passed away in 1995. He did not possess a will prepared by an esteemed law professional drawn up according to best practices. He did not avail himself of the wealth of legal knowledge that daily surrounded him. Instead, he saved a few pennies and wrote his own will (replete with many typographical errors.) He composed his masterpiece of departure using a typewriter and a humble sheet of paper. The entire document consisted of 176 words. The only satisfied recipient of the final behest was the IRS. The esteemed judge’s will was a rather drafty final draft—with enough holes that the IRS had no trouble reaching into his estate and clawing out nearly $500,000 in taxes, a large sum that—had he consulted a probate attorney—could have benefited his heirs instead.

People who solidly understand complicated estate tax laws, trusts (there are many different types) and the probate laws of their state may want to download an online generic form or borrow the judge’s typewriter. On the other hand, they may be better off—and their heirs will thank them—if they leave estate planning to a professional attorney who understands probate law and litigation. If using a good probate attorney causes tearful distress at the IRS, kindly heirs may wish to send IRS agents a box of tissues from the dollar store.