Friday, September 24, 2010

Do It Yourself Estate Planning

Forbes Magazine’s September 7 issue had a thought provoking article on “Do It Yourself Wills”.  My WealthCounsel colleague in Montana, Mark Josephson, took the conversation one step further with the commentary he shared.  I hope you find this informative.

Josephson begins,  “My Larsson estate commentary and a recent article on regarding the pitfalls of do-it-yourself estate planning,  The Case Against Do-It-Yourself Wills  got me thinking about some additional comments.  I could not agree more with the overall point made in the Forbes article.  I do disagree with some of the details. 

The Forbes article talks about the famous Montana court case involving Charles Kuralt (remember he was the famous CBS broadcaster who labeled Montana's Beartooth Highway as the most beautiful drive in America) and his handwritten love letter to his mistress.  In a case that went to the Montana Supreme Court FOUR times, his handwritten love letter was ruled to have given his valuable Montana property to his mistress and to add insult to injury Kuralt's family had to pay the estate taxes due on the Montana property because the handwritten letter did not coordinate with the tax clause of his professionally drafted Will.

The article reminded me of another Montana case,
The Estate of Dern, in which case Mary and Clifford Dern, who each had children from a different marriage, bought a trust package from a non-lawyer and also attempted to amend it themselves four times -- sometimes having proper signatures, sometimes not.  In the end, the children ended up suing Mary with the case ending up in the Montana Supreme Court.  I think Justice Nelson in that case summed up the whole do-it-yourself thing as best as I've ever read.   He said:

Given the facts of this case, it is appropriate to make a further observation. If nothing else, our decision here should serve as a warning of the pitfalls of the "canned," "fill in the blanks," "one size fits all" trust instruments that are increasingly being sold to unsuspecting members of the public, particularly senior citizens, by salesmen, many of whom have no professional qualifications whatsoever and some of whom are little better than scam artists. ... In truth, few areas of the law are more technical, complicated and prone to financial disaster than estate planning and trusts, nor more demanding of the sort of individually tailored advice and assistance that can best be obtained from a competent attorney and tax professional. This case, unfortunately, proves that point.  [my emphasis added]

From his position on the bench, Justice James C. Nelson of the Montana Supreme Court certainly offered a stern warning on the “DIY Wills”.  The Judge’s views seem to have been formed long before the Forbes 9/07/2010 article, but his sentiments seem to parallel the Forbes article.  I’d like to serve as the ounce of prevention by serving as your “competent attorney” that the Judge refers to in his above commentary.   

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