Q&A: DIY estate planning is unwise

Dear Liz: Please tell us about some estate planning tools that many might be able to use for themselves without incurring attorney fees and probate costs, such as naming payment-on-death beneficiaries at financial institutions and using real estate deeds with transfer-on-death provisions.

Answer: There are a number of ways that people can avoid probate, which is the court-supervised process of settling someone’s estate. Bank, financial and retirement accounts can pass to named beneficiaries outside probate, as can life insurance. Property owned in joint tenancy also avoids probate. Some states have transfer-on-death options for real estate and for vehicles.

The fact that you can avoid probate with these methods, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Do-it-yourself estate planning can create a mess for your heirs that could incur far more in legal fees than you would have spent getting expert, personalized advice in the first place. A good rule of thumb: If you can afford to hire an estate planning attorney, you probably should.

Also, you shouldn’t automatically assume that probate is worth avoiding.

Probate is often lengthy and expensive in California and Florida, but may be far less cumbersome elsewhere. In addition, small estates typically qualify for simplified probate that’s faster and cheaper.

Probate also has some advantages, including limiting the time creditors have to make claims against your estate. You also might prefer a court’s supervision if you have contentious heirs or you’re concerned that your executor might not carry out your wishes.