‘Lawyers Are Good’

I adapted this motto from that of Faber College (“Knowledge Is Good”), to illustrate a point about trust and estate planning. Lawyers are specially trained in the law and in legal writing for an important reason, which is so they can write documents that make sense and accomplish what they are supposed to do. But we do that so often that we sometimes forget that others aren’t trained in that way. In the trusts and estates world, we see many people trying to write documents without the necessary training.

This comes to mind because we have seen numerous advertisements lately for do-it-yourself kits for wills and incorporations. Well-known television advice givers and former counsel in high-profile murder cases are offering forms that permit people to write their own wills. Is this a good idea? No. One might think that, for all those people who don’t have any will, this is better than nothing. That sounds right, but it doesn’t seem to work out that way. We see numerous examples of wills that, because they are written without guidance, end up confusing the situation more than helping it. The real work of trust and estate planning is not the document; it’s the planning and thought that go into it.

There are similar problems that we see in “estate planning” that is done by financial planners, which often involves transferring assets to lifetime trusts to avoid the necessity of a will or probate. The idea of having your lifetime and testamentary financial wishes carried out through a kit doesn’t seem to make sense and, in the experience of many lawyers, it has created more work rather than less. And it’s not likely that the person doing the planning will come back to explain what he or she really meant. This type of planning had its genesis in a book written long ago, “How To Avoid Probate.” The theory was that probating a will was so difficult and revealed so much about a person’s private affairs, every effort should be made to arrange one’s affairs to avoid having to probate a will. That may be true in some states, but probate in Pennsylvania is easy and carried out by county officials who have streamlined the process to about half an hour. And, as for revealing to the world your estate plan and list of assets, unless you’re Marilyn Monroe or Betsy Ross, no one seems especially interested in reading your will.

There is a need, however, to assist people of modest means with estate planning. Lawyers often help with this work through the Philadelphia Bar Association, Senior Law Center and similar organizations. Do other professions offer as much pro bono assistance as lawyers? No. Despite that, there is a need for good estate planning advice for those with smaller estates, and anyone who has this expertise should consider volunteering with one of those groups.

Robert H. Louis
Saul Ewing
http://www.saul.com/

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