Unfortunately, I think some attorneys will advise the “better safe than sorry” approach. I feel that some attorneys oversell this as a way to drum up business and encourage people to review these every year or something like that. More typically, I encourage every five years, and that’s probably not a bad rule of thumb because life situations may have happened in the interim. Maybe somebody you named as a personal representative or a trustee passed away, or you’ve had a falling out with them, and that’s no longer who you would want.
Now, there can be changes in the law that might affect your documents, but that’s relatively rare. Estate planning law is slow to change, and usually, it’s rare that something has changed in the law in a short period of time that will have a dramatic effect on your estate planning. So certainly, a five-year rule of thumb is not a bad idea, but more importantly, when you’ve had significant life changes, you should think about your estate planning and contact an attorney to discuss that.
Do I Even Need An Estate Planning Attorney, Or Could I Do This On My Own Or With One Of Those Online Estate Planning Services?
People feel they can save a few bucks, and you don’t need an attorney anymore. Now let’s talk about some of those non-attorney ways to do this. The first one that causes me the most significant concern is what we call document preparers. And different states have different rules on this, but it’s the Wild West in most areas, including Arizona. There are not really any minimum legal requirements. There might be some certification available, but I’m not aware of any minimum requirements to call yourself a document preparer, and these folks can hold themselves out to do all sorts of things that I feel probably should not be done by a non-attorney, including divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning just for starters.
They’ll have all sorts of disclaimers that “I’m not an attorney, I’m not practicing law,” so it’s possible all they’re doing is filling in blanks on some forms that they have on a computer. They can print out some documents that look pretty, and “The client,” the individual, doesn’t know the difference of whether that’s properly drafted, whether it anticipates all contingencies. So it’s foolish to have non-attorneys prepare these. Document preparers are all flavors and sizes. Some are highly qualified paralegals, for example, but some are not and have no knowledge of what they’re doing. So it’s a gamble.
Beyond that, there are these new online programs. I might put a little more confidence in them that they’ve got a good Q&A funnel if you will, that they’ve got attorneys that have prepared those, but they are very cookie-cutter. I think many don’t anticipate contingencies or more complicated situations that clients might have better prepared for if sitting down with an attorney for an hour and exploring the whole picture, and understanding your choices. So I think it’s worth investing a little bit of money to do that.
Then you have a relationship with an attorney, so when questions come up, you have somebody to call and ask. Then the information will be with the document so that when you pass away, they have someone to turn to for guidance and maybe help in either probate or settling the trust.
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