Your Estate . . . with James Ward: Who is qualified to help you with your estate planning documents?
Published in the June 21 – July 4, 2017 of Morgan Hill Life
By James Ward
If you have a bad tooth, do you run to the carpenter to see if he can fix it? If your car doesn’t run properly, do you go to the carpet store to get it fixed? If your roof leaks, do you call a music instructor? In all cases, probably not.
So why do people go to non-attorneys for legal documents? Generally, it’s because they want to “save a buck” in getting it done, and the person preparing the documents likely tells them that the documents are just as good as you’d get from an experienced estate planning attorney. Ha! Don’t bet on it. Every week I see the mistakes and harm caused by people having bad legal documents. Legal documents are tricky. If they aren’t done right, they simply won’t work. If it’s estate planning documents that don’t work properly, you might not know it until the person is incapacitated or dead, and then everything falls apart.
It’s your body. It’s your health. It’s your wealth. It’s your family. Make sure things are taken care of properly.
In the Los Angeles County Probate Court, it’s estimated that more than 60 percent of the litigation cases come from Internet drafted wills and trusts. In many cases, they simply don’t work. The same goes for paralegals and other non-attorneys who draft these legal documents.
I had a local family come to me with their mother’s documents that were prepared by a paralegal. Mom may have saved $2,000 or so when she had the documents prepared, but now the mother had advanced Alzheimer’s and couldn’t sign new documents. Without being able to change the documents, the kids were set to lose a $450,000 house because it couldn’t be protected against California’s estate recovery laws.
A San Jose insurance broker came to me and bragged that he had done more than 1,000 living trusts, but he later found out that all those trusts had the same serious error. He wanted to send all of those clients to me and have me correct the error and send him a commission. Ha!
It would be a violation of law for me to share legal fees with a non-attorney. Were the errors ever fixed? Were the clients ever informed? I don’t know, but I’ve had a few of his clients come to me with those living trusts that had a lot more than just one serious error. In some cases, the family was already in litigation because of the errors in those trusts.
Families can be seriously injured if the legal documents are not correct. If you don’t have your estate planning documents reviewed by an experienced estate planning attorney, things may not work out according to your plan. Unfortunately, I see it all too often. Get the proper legal documents in place now to protect your wishes and prevent costly litigation down the road.
Your spouse or adult child may be the best person to make your decisions, but what if that person is deceased or incapacitated? Who’s next? Do you trust that person’s ability to make the right decisions for you and your family?
Make sure things are done the way you want them done.
Jim Ward is a longtime South Valley resident who resides in Morgan Hill. He went to law school in New England and obtained a post-graduate law degree in Estate Planning at the University of Miami. Jim worked as an Estate Planning and Elder Law attorney in Florida, and then returned home to open his own law firm focusing on both Estate Planning and Elder Law. He maintains one office in South Valley and another in Willow Glen.