What could happen if you write your own living trust
Readers often ask me about do-it-yourself estate planning. Lawyers want to know how to discourage clients from using books or software and websites that spew out documents for free or for a fraction of what they charge. Meantime, consumers ask, “What’s wrong with that?”
The trouble with do-it-yourself planning is that even if your situation seems simple, there are many oddball things a layman wouldn’t think of that can go wrong, especially with wills and trusts. These mistakes can end up costing you or your heirs a lot more than you saved in legal fees.
Eileen Guerin Swicker, a lawyer with her own practice in Leesburg, VA, recently told me about a really doozy. It involved a client who set up his own living trust.
By way of background, both a will and a living trust can be used to transfer assets, and each has unique uses and features. For example, only a will can name guardians for children who are minors. (For how to choose a guardian, see my post, “Adam Yauch’s Will Reveals His Private Dilemma.”) And unlike a will, a living trust can take effect while you are alive, so it can be used to hold assets for your benefit if you become unable to manage them yourself.
The client who Swicker told me about set up his own trust in 1984, using a 3-page form that he bought at an office supply store. He recorded a deed to transfer his home into the trust, and absentmindedly dated that deed 1983 (in other words, one year before the trust was created).
Flash forward to 2009 when this fellow, who had paid off the mortgage on the house, wanted to borrow against it. He planned to give his adult daughter $300,000 in cash so she, in turn, could pay off the mortgage on her own house. Great strategy (see my posts, “5 Ways To Help Family Pay For Housing,” and “The Best Investment Advice I Ever Received”).
But at this point, his clerical error of 25 years earlier came back to haunt him. Why? Because the title company said he didn’t have a clear chain of title to his home, so the bank wouldn’t give him the loan. The man, who by then was 75, called Swicker’s previous law firm in tears, asking for help.
Fixing the problem was a convoluted process that took two weeks and wound up costing the client $2,000 in legal fees. That’s about twice what he would have had to pay back in 1984 if he had had the firm draw up the trust instead of doing it himself, Swicker says.
After that, Swicker hoped the client would call back and ask lawyers to help bring his estate-planning documents up to date. But by the time Swicker left the firm eight months later, he still hadn’t done that. Says she: “It was one of those classic cases of somebody who dug a hole, and kept digging it deeper.”