DIY is no substitute for a lawyer in estate planning

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Dear Senior Living Adviser,
Can you recommend books or websites from which to learn more about the exact steps that are taken by various states to close the book on one’s legal life after he dies — in laymen’s language? Are there courses that laymen can take to learn, short of going back to law school?

I’m trying to understand the topics well enough to manage my own estate documents and to organize them in 1 easily accessible place. I do, however, want to divorce myself from attorneys, having had enough of them. Any question asked beyond the issue at hand results in ridiculous hourly fees.

I am the trustee of my revocable trust. I have a recently revised will and advanced directives, all implemented by expensive and arrogant attorneys.

I would like to learn on my own the specifics about such things as: How my beneficiary would sell my house. What would he need besides the deed? As the trustee, how does he handle the bank accounts? Does he just show up on the bank’s doorstep with the documents?

The whole question of probate is a mystery to me except that I understand its purpose is to be sure that the deceased leaves no debts unpaid — that he owes no one in his town, his state but also in the country or the world. But shouldn’t that assurance be equally applicable to all classes of people, even those who have trusts to ostensibly avoid probate?
— Barb the Disgruntled

Dear Barb,
I usually pick the surname when putting together a reply to a reader’s question, and I’m a sucker for alliteration, but your “Barb the Disgruntled” really spoke to me. I appreciate that you want to make things as easy as possible for the beneficiaries of your estate while minimizing legal costs.

Yes, attorneys are expensive, but they’re often less expensive than the alternative — making bad legal decisions. You’ve already worked with attorneys in drafting your estate plan, including a will, advanced directives and a revocable living trust — with you as trustee.

Now you want to gain the confidence that the plan your attorneys have put in place will work, without their continued supervision. Education can help you with that goal.

I like to use when I want to learn more about a legal topic. The ‘Lectric Law Library ( is another online source of legal information. sells guides on legal topics. Its “The Executor’s Guide: Settling a Loved One’s Estate or Trust” should lay out the information your successor trustee will need without you heading back to law school. I don’t see the point in you taking a series of classes on legal topics with the goal of trying to avoid paying attorneys for their expertise.

A revocable living trust can shield the assets held in the trust from probate after your death. You didn’t mention whether a durable power of attorney is part of your plan, should you become mentally incompetent or incapacitated.

A durable power of attorney is a legal document with which you appoint another person to act as your agent performing certain acts or functions on your behalf. It’s called a durable power of attorney because it remains in force, should you become mentally incompetent or incapacitated.

An alternate approach is a springing (or conditional) power of attorney, so called because it doesn’t become effective unless you become mentally incompetent or incapacitated. The springing power of attorney typically requires a doctor to certify that you’ve become mentally incompetent or incapacitated.

While trying to hold down legal costs and avoid probate to minimize the time and expense in settling an estate is a common goal in estate planning, it’s not the most important goal. The most important goal is that your wishes concerning your estate be carried out.

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