Pittsburgh Family Law Services, P.C. Blog

Lessons from Lisa Marie Presley: why you shouldn't DIY your estate plan

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By now, it’s all over the news that Priscilla Presley filed a petition to challenge the validity of an amendment to Lisa Marie Presley’s trust.  The trust removed Priscilla and a business manager and replaced them with two of Lisa Marie’s children.  

Trusts are a common tool in estate planning, and you don’t have to be wealthy like Lisa Marie Presley to use them. Trusts allow someone to control their assets during their lifetime, and they provide for distribution of those assets upon death.  They’re a wonderful tool for parents wh. o want to ensure their children will be financially protected. Like any estate planning document, they can be changed at any time so long as the person making the trust is competent to do so. In Lisa Marie’s situation, it looks like that’s exactly what she wanted to do—or so it seems. Priscilla’s filing alleges that the amendment is invalid due to numerous issues.

Let’s take a look at these issues:  lack of notifying Priscilla that she would be removed, lack of witnesses and notarization, an unusual signature from Lisa Marie, and even misspelling Priscilla’s name!  At first glance, these may seem like “careless, sloppy mistakes.”  It’s possible that’s exactly what they are.  But these “careless errors” have now guaranteed litigation. They aren’t even all that uncommon, either. People who are changing their estate planning documents don’t know if a trustee has to be notified of removal, they don’t know how many witnesses are required, they think notarization is optional, and they don’t proofread before signing. Once the trust has to be implemented or the Will goes into probate, suddenly a family member who was unexpectedly left out comes forward and says it’s invalid for one of these very common mistakes. The original document may very well be valid; it was likely drafted by a lawyer and proofread more than once for accuracy. It’s the amendments that came years later which families did on their own to save money that caused the trouble.  

Of course, most of us will never be Lisa Marie Presley. Her estate may have always gone to litigation because that’s so common among celebrities. But most of us have far more modest estates that can’t shoulder the burden of going to court and having depositions, investigations, and hearings to determine whether someone’s Will or Trust was even valid. The end result is that this plan which you created after carefully considering how you would best protect your loved ones might not be implemented. It will ultimately fall on your family to find a solution, likely demanding significantly more in legal fees than would have been needed if the plan were done properly the first time. 

It's no secret that working with an estate planning attorney requires far more of a financial investment than downloading a form off the internet and doing it yourself. That same financial investment prevents future costs. An estate planning lawyer has read those same Will and Trust documents over and over again, knows exactly how they work and what parts are most important to you. The lawyer knows the signature, witness, and notarization requirements. Your lawyer can even identify in the Will if you’ve been officially known with two different spellings to your name (think “Brian” versus “Bryan”) so nobody can say it was “misspelled.”  Finally, if you need to make changes—especially if those changes involve removing family members who would otherwise expect to receive something upon your death—a lawyer knows how to draft the documents so that it meets your needs and prevents challenges after your death.  By working with an estate planning attorney, you can be assured that what you desire to do will actually happen.