Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning attorneys see them all the time: the common estate planning mistakes that people make when they try to create an estate plan or a will by themselves. They learn about it, when families come to their offices trying to correct mistakes that could have been avoided just by seeking legal advice in the first place. That’s the message from the article “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’” from Dedham Wicked Local.

Here are the five estate planning mistakes that you can easily avoid:

Naming minors as beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations are a simple way to avoid probate and be certain that an asset goes to your beneficiary at death. Most life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and other financial accounts permit you to name a beneficiary. Many well-meaning parents (and grandparents) name a grandchild or a child as a beneficiary. However, a minor is not permitted to own an asset. Therefore, the financial institution will not name the minor child as the new owner. A conservator must be appointed by the court to receive the asset on behalf of the child and they must hold that asset for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes of legal age. The conservator must file annual accountings with the court reflecting activity in the account and report on how any funds were used for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes a legal adult. The time, effort, and expense of this are unnecessary. Handing a large amount of money to a child the moment they become of legal age is rarely a good idea. Leaving assets in trust for the benefit of a minor or young adult, without naming them directly as a beneficiary, is one solution.

Drafting a will without the help of an estate planning attorney. The will created at the kitchen table or from an online template is almost always a recipe for disaster. They don’t include administrative provisions required by the state’s laws, provisions are ambiguous or conflicting and the documents are often executed incorrectly, rendering them invalid. Whatever money or time the person thought they were saving is lost. There are court fees, penalties and other costs that add up fast to fix a DIY will.

Adding joint owners to bank accounts. It seems like a good idea. Adding an adult child to a bank account, allows the child to help the parent with paying bills, if hospitalized or lets them pay post-death bills. If the amount of money in the account is not large, that may work out okay. However, the child is considered an owner of any account they are added to. If the child is sued, gets divorced, files for bankruptcy or has trouble with creditors, that bank account is an asset that can be reached.

Joint ownership of accounts after death can be an issue, if your will does not clearly state what your intentions are for that account. Do those funds go to the child, or should they be distributed between heirs? If wishes are unclear, expect the disagreements and bad feelings to be directly proportionate to the size of the account. Thoughtful estate planning, that includes power of attorney and trust planning, will permit access to your assets when needed and division of assets after your death in a manner that is consistent with your intentions.

Failing to fund trusts. Funding a trust means changing the ownership of an asset, so the asset is owned by the trust or designating the trust as a beneficiary. When a trust is properly funded, assets funding the trust avoid probate at your death. If your trust includes estate tax planning provisions, the assets are sheltered from estate tax at death. You have to do this before you die. Once you’re gone, the benefits of funding the trust are gone. Work closely with your estate planning attorney to make sure that you follow the instructions to fund trusts.

Poor choices of co-fiduciaries. If your children have never gotten along, don’t expect that to change when you die. Recognize your children’s strengths and weaknesses and be realistic about their ability to work together, when deciding who will make financial decisions under a power of attorney, health care decisions under a health care proxy and who will best be able to settle your estate. If you choose two people who do not get along, or do not trust each other, it will take far longer and cost more to settle your estate. Don’t worry about birth order or egos.

The sixth biggest estate planning mistake people make, is failing to review their estate plan every few years. Estate laws change, tax laws change and lives change. If it’s been a while since your estate plan was reviewed, make an appointment to meet with your estate planning attorney for a review.

Reference: Dedham Wicked Local (May 17, 2019) “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’”

 

Complete Your Financial Plan with Estate Planning

If you are among those who haven’t put together a basic estate plan, you should make every effort to accomplish this in 2019. Your family and friends will thank you.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent article, “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan” reports that, while Americans are living longer, it was emphasized in a session at the American Society on Aging’s 2019 conference in New Orleans that 56% of Americans don’t have a will.

The basic list isn’t particularly daunting. Talk to an experienced estate planning lawyer to create a will to get your affairs in order.

You should also sign a health care directive and a durable power of attorney. It is also important to decide where you want to be buried or cremated.

You should discuss your late-life goals and desires with your family, relatives and close friends. This gives everyone a better idea about your values and thinking. An estate plan makes things much less stressful on your family.

Many people want to leave at least some money to their loved ones. However, instead of waiting for death to pass on assets, more people are now deciding to “give while living.”

For example, grandparents can help to fund their grandchildren’s education expenses. Nearly two-thirds of people 50 years and older are giving some financial support to family members, according to a survey by the financial services firm Merrill Lynch and demographic consulting firm Age Wave.

Since you are already thinking about your life while devising an estate plan, it is important to understand that far more valuable than your money and assets is your accumulated experience, knowledge and skills. You can tap into your experience later in life to help others succeed.  Your experience and judgment can help family members decide how to have both purpose and a paycheck.

Perhaps you can serve as a mentor for those in your community in areas where you have some expertise?

The desire to leave our families with a legacy is powerful. Don’t leave them without an estate plan.  Remember that giving of our experience can make a significant difference to the community around us.

Reference: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (May 4, 2019) “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan”

 

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan if I Relocate for Retirement?

Anyone who moves to another state, for retirement, a new job or to be closer to family, needs to have a look at their estate plan to make sure it is valid in their new state, advises the Boca Newspaper in the recent article “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

If an estate plan hasn’t been created, a relocation is the perfect opportunity to get this important task done. Think of it as preparation for your new life in your new home.

Because so many retirees do relocate to Florida, there are some general rules that make this easier. For one thing, most wills that are valid in another state are recognized in Florida. There’s a specific law in the Florida statutes that confirms that “other than a holographic or nuncupative will, executed by a nonresident of Florida… is valid as a will in this state if valid under the laws of the state or country where the will was executed.”

In other words, if the estate plan was prepared by an estate planning attorney and is legally valid in the prior state, it will be valid in Florida. Exceptions are a holographic will, which is a handwritten will that is signed by the person with no witnesses, or a nuncupative will, which is a verbal statement made in front of witnesses.

However, just because your will is recognized in Florida, does not mean that it doesn’t need a review.

There are distinctions in Florida law that may make certain provisions invalid or change their meaning. In one well-known case, a will was missing one sentence—known as a “residual clause,” a catch-all that distributes assets that are otherwise not specified. The maker of the will wanted everything to go to her brother. However, without that one clause, property acquired after the will was created was not included. The court determined that the property that was acquired after the will was created, would go to other relatives, despite the wishes of the decedent.

Little details mean a lot when it comes to estate plans.

It’s important to ensure that the last will and testament properly expresses intentions under the laws of your new home state. As you review or begin the process, this might be the time to speak with your estate planning attorney about whether any trusts are applicable to your estate. A revocable living trust, for example, would avoid the assets placed in the trust having to go through probate.

This is also the time to review your Durable Power of Attorney, designation of a Health Care Surrogate, Living Will and nomination of a pre-need Guardian.

Estate planning gives peace of mind, knowing that the legal side of your life is all taken care of. It avoids stress and unnecessary costs and delays to your family. It should be reviewed and updated, if needed, at big events in your life, including a relocation, the sale or purchase of a home or when you retire. You should contact an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (May 1, 2019) “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

 

Should I Use a DIY Will?

Sure, many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks in private, than have to talk to anyone about our questions. However, it’s better to get professional advice.

MarketWatch’s recent article, “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps,” says that if you prepare your taxes yourself and you make a mistake, you may need to meet with the IRS. However, you may never know the results of your work when it comes to a DIY will. Who will be the ones to find out if you made any mistakes, and need to pay the price? Your family.

You can find many DIY options for completing your own estate plan. With the ease and availability of these programs, along with lower prices, one would think more of us would have an up-to-date estate plan. According to the AARP article, Haven’t Done a Will Yet?, only 4 in 10 American adults have a will or living trust.

The four basic estate planning documents are a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive. If you try to produce any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. However, each state has its own probate code and the program you use may have different names for the documents. They also may not address state-specific questions.

Some DIY sites have all these documents, but you must buy their higher-end packages to access them. Others offer what they call a “limited attorney consultation” in the form of a drop-down menu of questions with pre-written responses, not an actual conversation with an attorney.

The range of DIY services also has a range of prices. Some claim it’s $69 for just a will, and others charge hundreds of dollars for what may be described as a “complete plan.” Some sites have more information than others about their options, so you must dig through the website to be certain you’re getting a legally binding will or other estate planning document. It is important to read the fine print with care.

Most of these websites presume you already know what you want, but most people have no idea what they want or need. When you get into the complexities of family dynamics and trust language specific to your state and situation, these DIY estate planning packages can cause more challenges than working with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Remember: you don’t know what you don’t know. You may not know the case law and legislation that have evolved into your state’s probate code.

Play it safe and use an attorney who specializes in estate planning. Your family will be grateful that you did.

Reference: MarketWatch (May 3, 2019) “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps”

 

Communicate Your Wishes and Have the Documents in Place

Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor.

If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.

Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.

If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.

There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes.

Revocable Trust. This can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.

If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.

Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.

You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.

Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is a way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.

Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.

Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes.

All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.

Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”

 

An Estate Plan Directs Assets According to Your Wishes

Anyone who has any assets they want distributed should have an estate plan, regardless of the size of their estate. Having a will and an estate plan created by an experienced estate planning attorney is the easiest place to start, says the Observer-Reporter in the article “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want.” Without a will, the state will decide what happens to your assets, and it may not be what you wanted.

If your will was done more than four years ago and was never updated, it may lead to some unwanted results. If people you named as beneficiaries or executors have died, or if there were divorces in your family, these are examples of changes that should be addressed in the estate plan.

Many people don’t know that insurance policies, annuities, 401(k), or IRA accounts that have a designated beneficiary are going to the designated beneficiary, regardless of what is in the will. If the will says everything in the estate should be divided equally between children, but one child was named the beneficiary on the life insurance policy, then only the named child will inherit the insurance policy.

Another part of an estate plan that is needed to ensure that your wishes are followed, is a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney. The financial power of attorney gives the person you name the legal ability to make financial decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. The health care power of attorney, similarly, gives the person you name the power to make health care decisions for you, if you cannot do so for yourself. A living will is another part of planning for incapacity that is a part of a comprehensive estate plan. The living will lets your wishes for end of life care be known to others.

Assets that pass to heirs through beneficiary designations do not go through the probate process. However, assets distributed through your will do so. Probate administration of an estate takes some time to complete, depending upon where you live. In some states, probate is more involved and time consuming than in others.

Another reason why people like to avoid probate is that documents, including your will, are filed with the court and become part of the public record. That’s why many people who lose a family member find themselves receiving direct mail and phone calls about buying insurance policy or selling their home.

There are ways to minimize the number of assets that pass through probate, which your estate planning attorney will be able to explain. Trusts are used for this purpose. There are a variety of trusts that can be used, depending upon your circumstances. Some are used to protect inheritances, if a person has an opiate addiction or cannot manage her own affairs. Others are used, so individuals with special needs do not receive inheritances that would make them ineligible for government benefits.

An experienced estate planning attorney can advise you in creating an estate plan that fits your unique circumstances.

Reference: Observer-Reporter (April 19, 2019) “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want”

 

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

Morningstar’s article, “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider” explains that a living will or advance medical directive, are legal documents that detail your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. They are documents that you sign when you are of sound mind and say you want to be removed from life supporting measures, if you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

If you’re on life support with no chance of getting better, you’d choose to have your family avoid the expense and stress of keeping you alive artificially.

Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that names an agent to make healthcare decisions for you, if you are unable to make them yourself.

A durable power of attorney for healthcare can provide your instructions in circumstances in which you’re not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

When selecting an agent, find a person you trust enough to act on your behalf when you’re unable. Let this person know exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information and other sensitive topics that may arise, if you’re incapacitated.

A durable power of attorney eliminates any confusion, especially if this person is someone other than your spouse. Your doctors will know exactly who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends.

These two documents aren’t all that comprise a fully comprehensive estate plan. Singles should regularly make certain that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date.

You should also consider your life insurance needs, especially if you have children and/or a mortgage.

It is also important to understand that a living will doesn’t address the issues of a will. A will ensures that your property is distributed after your death, in accordance with your wishes. Ask for help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

These two documents—a living will and a durable power of attorney—can help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in accordance with what you really want. Speak with to an estate planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

 

What Are the Six Most Frequent Estate Planning Mistakes?

it is a grim topic, but it is an important one. Without a legal will in place, your loved ones may spend years stuck in court proceedings and spend a lot in legal fees to settle your estate.

The San Diego Tribune writes in its recent article, 6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid, that without a plan, everything is more stressful and expensive. Let’s look at the top six estate planning mistakes that people need to avoid:

No Plan. Regardless of your age or financial status, it’s critical to have a basic estate plan. This includes crafting powers of attorney for both healthcare and finances and a living will.

No Discussion. Once you create your plan, tell your family. Those you’ve named to take care of you, need to know what you’ve decided and where to find your plan.

Focusing Only on Taxes. Estate planning can be much more than just about tax avoidance. There are many other reasons to create an estate plan that have nothing to do with taxes, like charitable giving, special needs planning for a family member, succession planning in the event of incapacity and planning for children of a prior marriage, to name just a few.

Leaving Assets Directly to Children. If you leave assets directly to your children or grandchildren under age 18, it can cause unintended custodian or guardianship issues. Minors can’t own legal property, so a guardian will be appointed by the court to manage the property for them, until they reach age 18. If you don’t name a guardian, the court will appoint one for you and that person may have very different ideas about how the account should be managed and invested.

Making Mistakes with Ownership and Property Titles. With many blended families, you may want to preserve assets from an inheritance as your own separate property or from a prior marriage for your children. There are many tax consequences and control issues in blended families about which you may not be aware.

Messing Up Your Trust. Many people don’t properly fund or update their trusts. An unfunded trust doesn’t do anyone any good. Assets that aren’t titled in the name of the trust don’t avoid probate.

Finally, be sure to review your estate plan regularly, and make an appointment with a local, experienced estate planning attorney  as your circumstances change.

Reference: San Diego Tribune (April 18, 2019) “6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid”

 

What Are the Five “Must Have” Estate Planning Documents?

WTHR 13’s recent article, “The 5 legal documents every adult should have” lists the five key documents involved in estate planning.

  1. General Durable Power of Attorney. This document states who you want to make decisions, if you’re unable to do so for yourself. Without it, your family may have to petition the courts to become your legal guardian, which can be time consuming and expensive. A power of attorney allows the person whom you select, to pay your mortgage or rent and your bills.
  2. Health Care Power of Attorney. This document plans for the situation, if you are unable to make your own health care decisions. You name someone you trust, like family members or friends, to do this on your behalf.
  3. Will. This says that when you pass away, here’s what I want to happen. A will states who will get your assets after your death. If you don’t have a valid will in place, the state laws of intestacy will govern what will happen to your estate—which may not be what you want.
  4. Living Will. This is the document in which you state your instructions for end-of-life care, such as life support. This document is used to make certain that your family and physicians know what you want your end-of-life care to be. A living will is much different than a will.
  5. Revocable Living Trust. This document can be important, if you’re a parent with young children and would like your assets passed down properly to your children, if you die. Typically, if children are under 18 or 21, they’re legally minors and can’t receive assets. A trust can help coordinate their receiving your property.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you with the creation of these documents, while creating an overall plan so that your wishes are followed, your legacy is protected and your family is secure.

Reference: WTHR 13 (April 17, 2019) “The 5 legal documents every adult should have”

 

Here’s Why You Need a Health Care Directive

Advance health care planning comes into play, if a person becomes incapacitated, whether that status is permanent or temporary. This is part of a comprehensive estate plan, and why you’ll want to take care of this before something occurs. That’s the recommendation from the McPherson Sentinel article “Advance health care directives important to all adults.”

Documenting your wishes about future health care lets a cognitively healthy person express their wishes with a clear perspective. Unfortunately, only one in four American adults has their advance health care directive in place. Many wait to begin the planning process, until they are in their 50s or 60s. The problem is, life doesn’t have a plan. At any time in life, tragedy can strike. A serious illness or an accident can occur, and leave the family wondering what the person would have wanted.

The most common advance directives including a durable power of attorney for health care, living will, and pre-hospital do not resuscitate directive, known also as a “DNR.”

The durable power of attorney for health care allows you to name a person to make medical decisions for you, in the event you cannot. They are also referred to as a “medical power of attorney” or “health care agent.”

This is different than a durable power of attorney, which gives a person the right to act as another person’s agent and conduct all business and financial matters on their behalf.

It’s very important that the people you name to fulfill these roles are told that they have been named. They need to fully understand what your wishes are, what kinds of treatments are and are not acceptable for you, your preferences for doctors and where you would like the treatment to take place.

If you live in a small rural town that does not have specialists, and there is a hospital nearby that offers excellent care, your durable power of attorney for health care can include your wish to be taken to the hospital to receive more specialized care.

The person selected will need to be trustworthy and have the ability and willingness to communicate your wishes, even if family members don’t agree with your choices. They will need to follow your wishes, even if they are not the same as their own.

Keep family dynamics in mind. If a younger sibling is selected to be your health care agent and they have been dominated throughout their life by an older sibling, will your wishes be honored, or will they become the subject of an extended argument?

A living will is a document that details the type of care you want to receive at the end of life. It explains your wishes about accepting life-sustaining procedures, like being placed on a ventilator, receiving artificial nutrition and hydration, if at least two physicians deem that your condition would otherwise be terminal.

These documents should be prepared for you as part of your overall estate plan, with the guidance of an estate planning attorney. Be aware that the laws vary from state to state, so you’ll want to work with an attorney who knows your state’s laws. If you relocate to another state, you will need to have your estate plan updated to ensure that it is still valid.

Finally, make sure to tell several people about these documents, and have the health care documents located in a place, where they can be easily found in an emergency. If you keep them in a bank safe deposit box, it is unlikely that they will be found in a time of crisis.

Reference: McPherson Sentinel (April 17, 2019) “Advance health care directives important to all adults”