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Legal DIY: A Cautionary Tale

One day I met with a new potential client. She greeted me and slid a stack of estate planning documents across the table and asked me if I would review them to verify that they were valid under New Mexico law. They were certainly valid! The Last Will and Testament was witnessed by two people. It was notarized. There was a self-proving affidavit (the legalese at the end of a will). It didn’t appear to have been revoked. However, after about thirty seconds I said, you used the “Susana Orvil” (names have been changed) software, didn’t you? She was SO impressed with me! How did I

know this? Was it the font? Had I reviewed so many of Susana’s documents in the past that I could almost instantly recognize them?

Unfortunately, no and no. I guessed based on the written direction in her valid will that she was leaving all the rest and residue of her estate to the SUSANA ORVIL TRUST! No kidding. This poor lady had paid money (presumably) to purchase the rights to use prepackaged software for an estate plan and had unwittingly almost written out her children from her estate. She was shocked and after she reviewed it with her own eyes, she immediately tore up the will and revoked it under New Mexico law.

Unfortunately, we routinely see situations where people try to save some money by taking shortcuts. Companies advertise on tv and promise to provide fast and effective (cheap!) legal services for many legal matters: patents and trademarks, LLC and corporation formation and other business matters, wills and trusts and other estate planning, divorce pleadings, and so forth.

We also see instances where one person will “borrow” another person’s legal documents and modify the documents to meet his needs. Or, someone may decide to type up her own amendment to her trust agreement even though she paid an attorney to properly prepare it years ago. It can’t be that hard, right?

Another common problem we see is that family friends who are attorneys (divorce, criminal, etc.) will prepare estate planning documents as a “favor” to someone. If they are not estate planning attorneys, they often miss important issues that trigger problems down the road.

As the old adage goes, you generally get what you pay for.

In our firm, in a typical year, we probably spend about twenty-five percent of our time cleaning up the “shortcuts” that didn’t turn out well. Needless to say, cleaning up messes is usually far more expensive than it would have been if the person had simply hired an appropriate attorney, in the appropriate state, to handle the matter to begin with. The client in my Susana Orvil story ended up engaging our firm to draw up an appropriate estate plan. It was relatively straightforward and she did not complain about the fees. Had she died with the Susana Orvil documents in place, there would have certainly been litigation to contest the will. One can only imagine what those fees might have amounted to. I wonder if Susana Orvil would have left the studio for her television show long enough to argue that she was the rightful heir of a viewer’s estate in New Mexico?

Does this mean that everyone should always seek out the most experienced, most qualified attorney, for all matters? Of course not. If you have a relatively small estate and are not worried about estate taxes, and your family members all get along, you might be well served by an estate planning attorney who generally does not handle complex matters. Some organizations like Senior Citizens Law Office (“SCLO”) in New Mexico offer discounted legal services for clients who qualify. SCLO is a non-profit organization that receives contributions and grants from other attorneys and charities to provide estate plans and other services to seniors for a fraction of the cost of a typical attorney. However, our general recommendation is that one should not take a stab at legal matters on his own or call in a favor from her neighbor who is a divorce attorney for estate planning. We recommend finding the appropriate attorney, in the appropriate state, who has experience with your particular matter (no matter how complex or straightforward). Needless to say, this would generally not be Susana Orvil!

Post by: Vickie R. Wilcox, J.D., LL.M. (Taxation)

Disclaimer: These materials are designed as a general overview and should not be relied upon for legal or tax advice. Please consult a qualified attorney and/or tax advisor for compliance and up-to-date information and advice specific to your circumstances.



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