I occasionally get asked if it is really necessary to hire an attorney to prepare simple estate planning documents. Usually, the answer is NO, however, I find that once I start asking a few questions, most people really don't need a simple Will and they would be much better served with professional guidance.
Let me take you through some of the questions that I ask to determine whether it is worthwhile to engage legal counsel:
- Do you have children from a previous marriage? If so, I strongly recommend that you hire an attorney.
- Do you minor children? Most likely you would benefit from professional advice.
- Are you wealthy? If you have less than $300,000, I would say you probably would not need an attorney. Between $300,000 - $500,000 is maybe. Between $500,000 to $2,000,000 is probably.If you have over $2,000,000, I strongly recommend that you hire an estate planning attorney with a masters in taxation.
- Do you wish to leave money to a person with special needs child, drug/alcohol problems, going through divorce, bad with money or might otherwise require special instructions? If so, I strongly recommend that you hire an attorney.
- Are you leaving money UNEQUALLY to your children or are you cutting out one of your next of kin? If so, I strongly recommend that you hire an attorney.
- Do you have concerns that your next of kin might fight over your inheritance? If so, I strongly recommend that you hire an attorney.
- Do you plan to leave more than a token amount to charity? If so, I strongly recommend that you hire an attorney with a masters in taxation.
- Do you plan to leave different types of assets to different people? (For example, a business to one child, one piece of real estate to another child, and an IRA to a third child) If so, I strongly recommend that you hire an attorney.
- Do you intend to leave money to a pet? Yes - serious question for some and if you do, I recommend using an attorney.
- Do you own any unusual items that have value (such as artwork, intellectual property, family heirlooms)? If so, you probably wish to hire an attorney.
- Do you own assets in more than one jurisdiction? If so, I recommend using an attorney.
- Are you elderly and worried that you may need to spend significant time (over 2 years) in a nursing home? Then you should probably meet with a Medicaid attorney.
- Where do you live? In some states, probate is an absolute nightmare, so even with a small amount, you might wish to hire an attorney to help you avoid probate.
So what do I consider a simple situation? Generally it is a person who has less than $300,000 of traditional assets, has responsible adult children who all get along, and the testator wishes to leave everything outright to those children in a probate friendly state. Most others could basically save time or money with professional advice.