Each year I give a number of talks about tax and estate planning. I always invite questions from the audience. It’s amazing how many lay persons suffer from misconceptions regarding the application of the even the most basic laws. For example, many people think that it’s perfectly normal to die without a will.

When I point out to them that a number of years ago, due to the enactment of a new probate code, South Carolina’s law changed overnight the intestate share of certain surviving spouses from one-third to one-half of the probate estate, they begin to see that they should not leave their estate planning to the government. When I point out that the legislature (through the probate code) determines who the personal representative of an intestate estate will be (by providing a priority list), the importance of making that appointment in a will becomes clear.

But, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about estate planning, income tax planning, business formation or transition planning or simply how to reduce your income tax liability. Giving any of these matters some forethought just makes good sense. Do you want someone else making these important decisions for you, or do you want to take part in making them yourself?

For example, most lay persons are not aware that South Carolina’s laws governing limited liability companies, corporations, professional corporations and partnerships have default provisions that dictate how certain matters, such as death of an owner, must be handled. Generally, the default provision may be varied by an agreement among the parties involved. But, if the parties don’t make that agreement, the default provision governs.

I make a joking comment during my talks about people who do their own wills, etc., so that they can cheat some honest lawyer out of his rightful fee. After all the retorts about there not being any honest lawyers, I ask the audience if, the next time one of them is ill, he or she would like to be turned loose in a pharmacy to choose the medicine that will cure the illness. Aside from those with training to do so, no one thinks that it would be a very good idea.

Why, I ask, would you attempt to handle your own legal affairs if you wouldn’t attempt to fill your own prescriptions for medicine? Maybe because one involves only money (as a rule), but the other involves a life and death decision. I’ve seen some wills prepared by individuals for themselves that, if it had been up to the surviving family members, would have resulted in a second death for the decedent.

So, whether or not you believe that there are any honest lawyers, there certainly are a lot of competent lawyers providing valuable services to their clients. Do yourself a favor and go see one.