Often, in an attempt to save money, people will try to do things on their own instead of hiring a professional who is trained to handle the specific task; estate planning is no different. I am often asked if a person can prepare their own will. Of course, like most everything else, the answer is yes. A will that is entirely written, signed and dated in a person’s handwriting is a valid will in Louisiana. It is called an olographic will. The real question is not whether you can do it yourself, but whether it is a good idea to do so.
In today’s world, there is a how-to book, YouTube video, or website purporting to help you accomplish almost any task. Ten years ago, when I first wrote about DIY Estate Planning, Google returned 14,500,000 entries for “do it yourself will.” Today, it returns 1,610,000,000 entries. Websites like LegalZoom claim to help you build legal documents in a minute’s time. Undoubtedly, there is a book somewhere entitled “Wills for Dummies.” With so much information available, it can be difficult to sort it all out.
Wills and other estate planning documents (including powers of attorneys and living wills) have traditionally been drafted by attorneys. All attorneys who practice law in Louisiana are required to get a four year undergraduate degree and then graduate from law school, which is usually an additional three year program. They must then pass the bar exam to get their license to practice law. During this education and testing, the lawyer learns about property law, debtor and creditor law, will and trust law and some tax law. A thorough understanding of these subjects is essential to proper estate planning and those who concentrate their law practices in estate planning should be well-versed in all of these areas. A self-help book or computer program cannot teach you enough about each of these areas for you to do proper estate planning – especially since laws regarding estate planning regularly change.
Furthermore, Louisiana’s laws are unique in the United States. As you probably know, Louisiana’s law is developed differently than the other states’ laws. Books and websites on estate planning are written to be general in nature so they do not usually include all provisions that are necessary for proper planning in Louisiana. AARP also recognizes that Louisiana residents should not use self-help materials. At one time, a quiz on their website asked “Why can’t residents of Louisiana use self-help will-preparation materials?” The answer given was that “Louisiana’s laws are based on something called the Code Napoleon, a legislated system of law (as opposed to interpreted common law) designed at the behest of the Little Emperor himself in the early 1800s. In modern practice it doesn’t mean much, but there are enough quirks in the area of wills and estates to make a trip to the lawyer’s office pretty much mandatory.”
When asked what’s important to them, most people will say their spouse, children, or other friends and family. If that is indeed true, it would seem that planning for their future should be as important as making sure their material goods are well taken care of. So, to the question of whether you can prepare your own estate plan – of course you can. It’s a free country. You can also give yourself an appendectomy if you want.
The old saying, “If you want it done right, do it yourself,” does not apply here. Ask anyone who has ever been involved in a lawsuit over a loved one’s estate and they will tell you that risking everything you own and everyone you love to save a few dollars in the short term is not a very good idea. Consider celebrating National Make-a-Will this August Month by contacting a local professional and finding out what your best planning options are.
The information provided is not intended to be legal advice and does not constitute any attorney/client relationship. You should consult with an attorney for individual advice regarding your own situation.
Ms. Melancon is an attorney with Legacy Estate & Elder Law of Louisiana, LLC with offices in Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, LA. The primary focus of her practice is estate planning, probate, special needs planning, and elder law. For more information or to attend an upcoming estate planning seminar, call her office at (225) 744-0027