By Attorney Ted Brown
I recently came across another example of self-help estate planning gone drastically wrong. In this case, Mom was in her 80′s and owned a family farm and a life-savings of conservative investments. She wanted her estate to be divided equally among her four children but wanted to make sure her two sons, who were farmers, got the farm.
So, to keep things simple, she deeded the farm to her two sons, and created a “simple” will leaving everything else (the cash investments) to her two daughters. She used a national legal self-help service to get templates of the necessary documents and was satisfied she had done everything she needed to do while avoiding the costly fees of an estate planning attorney.
However, when Mom passed away things were not nearly as simple as she had hoped. The will that she had prepared was not valid because it did not comply with the complexities of Ohio law. Therefore, her plan to divide the investments among her daughters failed. Not only did her assets have to go through the hassle and expense of probate, but since there was no valid will, her assets were divided according to state law.
This gave the investments equally among all four children. Since she had already given the farm to her sons, they ended up with a larger share and were under no obligation to even things out as mom had intended. However, it turned out that they would need the extra cash to cover the large capital gains tax burden that was created when mom gifted the farm to them while she was alive.
I see cases like this all too often. Estate planning is one of the most important decisions you will make and it is always best to consult a professional who specializes in that area. The legal fee paid to ensure that your estate is in order, up to date with state law and tailored to the specifics of your family will be far less than the fee associated with sorting out a flawed do-it-yourself strategy. Estate planning is like anything else: you get what you pay for.