May 12, 2013

Let me tell you the story about a boy named Su. And no, I’m not talking about Johnny Cash’s “how do you do” Sue. Our Su was born in Taiwan in 1926, immigrated to San Francisco in 1956, and died in Montana in 2006. Like many immigrants he epitomized hard work and realized the American dream.

Su began his career in the back of a kitchen, moved up front and eventually out the door and started a food distribution business. One hard-earned opportunity led to another and by the time of his death he was worth several million dollars. Su is representative of millions of people that have come to the greatest country ever conceived and created their own luck through self-education and relentless persistence. Su eventually married an employee, raised four children and retired to Montana. Su’s first wife Karen predeceased him, but three years later Su rediscovered love at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, remarried and lived there until his death seven years ago.

I wish all inspiring stories had a song-like ending, but that doesn’t always happen in the real world. You see, because everything Su had ever accomplished or acquired was a direct result of his own initiative, Su drafted his own will leaving everything to his 43-year-old, second wife. If I tell you that her name was Susie you wouldn’t believe me, so I won’t.

Let me now tell you a story about a boy named Dave. I’m not really sure where Dave was born and I couldn’t find any evidence about Dave’s education, but it appears that Dave made ends meet by painting signs, teaching bridge and raking yards. It also appears that Dave was unlucky in his romantic pursuits because records reflect four short marriages to women with only one thing in common, their tax bracket. The last marriage being to, you guessed it, Susie Su.

Now I am not going to predict that this last marriage would have ended poorly, but I will say that it did end tragically and involved a fatal equestrian accident. Nevertheless, there is a nice stretch of land on the Madison that is now enjoyed by 23 show horses, an assortment of dogs and Dave. I will allow you to connect the dots and fill in the blanks.

With the number of online and do-it-yourself legal providers continuing to grow, some individuals may be wondering why they should hire an attorney. The advertising is seductive: attorneys use similar forms, the cost is significantly less than hiring an attorney and many of these websites and kits are created by attorneys. In addition, most people think their estates are not complicated.

Unfortunately, these ads fail to discuss the nightmarish outcomes often accompanying these products. In this day of required disclaimers, I don’t understand why the FTC doesn’t require something like “and sometimes they work” language at the end of these ads. I recently heard a story where it cost the family just over $12,000 to straighten out the mess arising from a $99 DIY will.

Most professionals know that DIY estate planning can be very dangerous. While completing the forms may seem easy and straightforward, a single mistake or omission can have far-reaching complications that only come to light after the person has died. With that person now gone, the heirs could end up confused, fighting and paying much more in legal help trying to sort fact from fiction.

And though an attorney’s advice may be valuable, so are the nuggets of wisdom that we gleaned from our parents and grandparents, you know the ones about getting what you pay for, and an ounce of prevention. When it comes to planning your legacy, taking care of your heirs and protecting the assets you leave behind, is this really the place to seek out the lowest cost provider? And ask yourself, are you really the most qualified person for the job? As a plumber once told me, hiring a professional seems expensive, until you’ve hired an amateur.

In this story about “A Boy Named Su,” I have changed the names and details to protect the innocent, namely me. In the “A Boy Named Sue” song, the dad had nothing to leave his son. His only hope for giving his son a leg up on the world was by making him tough, and he did so by naming him Sue. And as a consequence, Johnny Cash created perhaps the finest estate planning song ever recorded.