Because estate planning involves actively thinking about and planning for frightening topics like death, old age, and crippling disability, many people put it off or simply ignore it altogether until it’s too late. Sadly, this unwillingness to face reality often creates serious hardship, expense, and trauma for those loved ones you leave behind.
To complicate matters, the recent proliferation of online estate planning document services, such as LegalZoom®, Rocket Lawyer®, and Trustandwill.com, may have misled you into thinking that estate planning is a do-it-yourself (DIY) affair, which involves nothing more than filling out the right legal forms. However, proper estate planning entails far more than filling out legal forms.
In fact, without a thorough understanding of how the legal process works upon your death or incapacity, along with knowing how it applies specifically to your family dynamics and the nature of your assets, you’ll likely make serious mistakes when creating a DIY will or trust. And the worst part is that these mistakes won’t be discovered until you are gone—and the very people you were trying to protect will be the ones stuck cleaning up the mess you created just to save a few bucks.
Estate planning is definitely not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Even if you think your particular situation is simple, that turns out to almost never be the case. To demonstrate just how complicated estate planning can be, last week in part one, we highlighted the first five of 10 of the most common estate-planning mistakes, and here we wrap up the list with the remaining five mistakes.
6. Not Updating Beneficiary Designations
In addition to reviewing and updating your core estate planning documents like your will, trust, and power of attorney, it’s crucial that you also update the documentation for your other assets, especially those with beneficiary designations. Some of your most valuable assets, like 401(k)s, IRAs, and life insurance policies, do not transfer via a will or trust.
Instead, these assets have beneficiary designations that allow you to name the person (or persons) you’d like to inherit the asset upon your death. Oftentimes, people forget to change their beneficiary designations to match their estate planning goals, which can lead to disaster. For example, if you get remarried and forget to update your 401(k), your ex-spouse from 20 years ago could end up inheriting your retirement savings.
Additionally, some people assume that because they’ve named a specific heir as the beneficiary of their IRA in their will or trust that there’s no need to list the same person again as a beneficiary in their IRA paperwork. Because of this, they leave the IRA beneficiary form blank or list “my estate” as the beneficiary. But this is a major mistake—and one that can lead to serious complications and expenses for your loved ones.
It makes no difference who is listed as the beneficiary in your will or trust; you must list the person you want to inherit the asset in the beneficiary designation, or your heirs will have to go to court to claim the asset.
And you should never name a minor child as a beneficiary of your life insurance or retirement accounts, even as the secondary beneficiary. If a child inherits assets, the assets become subject to the control of the court until they reach the age of 18, and then, the assets are distributed outright without any protection or direction.
If you want a minor to inherit assets, you can create a special trust to hold the asset until the child comes of age, and name someone you trust to serve as a successor trustee to manage the assets until that time. As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can support you to choose the appropriate trust for this purpose to ensure your child gets the maximum benefit from their inheritance.
7. Improper Execution
You could have the best estate planning documents in the world, but if you fail to sign them, or sign them improperly, they will fail. This might seem trivial, but we see it all the time. A loved one dies, their family brings their estate planning documents to us, and we can’t help them because the documents were either not signed or were signed improperly.
To be considered legally valid, certain estate planning documents like wills must be executed (i.e. signed, witnessed, and/or notarized) following very strict legal procedures. For example, many states require that you and every witness to your will must sign it in the presence of one another. If your DIY service doesn’t mention that condition (or you don’t read the fine print) and you fail to follow this procedure, the document can end up worthless.
8. Choosing The Wrong Executors Or Trustees
In addition to laws regarding execution, state laws are also very specific about who can serve in certain roles like executor, trustee, or financial power of attorney. In some states, for instance, the executor of your will must either be a family member or an in-law, and if not, the person you choose must live in the state. If your chosen executor doesn’t meet those requirements, he or she cannot serve.
Moreover, some states require the person you name as your executor to get a bond, which is like an insurance policy before he or she can serve. Such bonds can be difficult to get for someone who has a less-than-stellar credit score. If your executor cannot get a bond, it would be up to the court to appoint your executor, which could end up being someone you would never want managing your assets or a third-party professional, who could drain your estate with costly fees.
As your Personal Family Lawyer®, we will guide you to choose the most appropriate and qualified executors and/or trustees to manage your estate and assets.
9. Unintended Conflict Between Family Members
Family dynamics are—to put it lightly—quite complex. This is particularly true for blended families, where spouses have children from previous relationships. If you try to go it alone using a DIY document service, you won’t be able to consider all of the potential areas where conflict might arise among your family members and plan ahead to avoid such disputes. After all, even the best set of documents will be unable to anticipate and navigate these complex emotional matters—but we can.
Every day we see families end up in lifelong conflict due to poor estate planning. Yet, we also see families brought closer together as a result of handling these matters the right way. When done right, the estate planning process is actually a major opportunity to build new connections within your family, and our lawyers are specifically trained to help you with that.
In fact, preventing family conflict with proactive estate planning is our special sauce and one of the many reasons to work with us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, rather than relying on DIY planning documents, which will not identify nor prevent unforeseen family disputes.
10. Failing To Properly Name Guardians For Minor Children
If you are a mom or dad with children under the age of 18 at home, your number-one estate planning priority should be selecting and legally documenting both long and short-term guardians for your kids. Guardians are the people legally named to care for your children in the event something happens to you.
If you’ve named guardians for your minor children in your will—even with the help of another lawyer—your kids could still be at risk of being taken into the care of strangers. For instance, what would happen if you became incapacitated and were no longer able to care for them? Did you know that your will only becomes operative in the event of your death, and it would do nothing to protect your children in the event of your incapacity?
Or perhaps the guardians you named in your will live far from your home, so it would take them several days to get there. If you haven’t made legally-binding arrangements for the immediate care of your children, it’s highly likely that they will be placed with the authorities until those guardians arrive.
And does anyone even know where you will is located and how to access it? How can they prove they are your children’s legal guardians if they can’t even find your estate plan?
These are just a few of the potential complications that can arise when naming legal guardians for your kids, whether in your will or as a stand-alone measure. And if just one of these contingencies were to occur, your children would more than likely be placed into the care of strangers. Sadly, we see this happen even to those parents who’ve worked with lawyers to name legal guardians for their children, and that’s because most lawyers simply don’t know what’s necessary for planning and ensuring the well-being and care of minor children.
Life & Legacy Planning: Do Right By Those You Love Most
The DIY approach might be a good idea if you’re looking to build a new deck for your backyard, but when it comes to estate planning, it’s actually one of the worst choices you can make. Are you really willing to put your family’s well-being and wealth at risk just to save a few bucks?
If you’ve yet to do any planning, contact us, your Personal Family Lawyer® to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session, which is the first step in our Life & Legacy Planning Process. During this initial meeting, we’ll take you through an analysis of your assets, what’s most important to you, and what will happen to your loved ones when you die or if you become incapacitated.
If, as a result of this process, we determine that you really do have a very simple situation and you want to create your own estate planning documents yourself online, we will support you to do that. However, if as a result of the process, you decide you would like us to create a plan for you, we’ll support you to find the optimal level of planning for a price that’s right for you.
And if you’ve already created an estate plan—whether it’s a DIY job or one created with another lawyer’s help—contact us to schedule an Estate Plan Review & Check-Up. With our support, we will ensure your plan is not only properly drafted and updated, but that it has all of the protections in place to prevent your children from ever being placed in the care of strangers or anyone you’d never want to raise them.
In either case, working with us will empower you to feel 100% confident that you have the right combination of estate planning solutions to fit your unique asset profile, family dynamics, and budget. As your Personal Family Lawyer® firm, we see estate planning as far more than simply planning for your death and passing on your “estate” and assets to your loved ones—it’s about planning for a life you love and a legacy worth leaving by the choices you make today—and this is why we call our services ‘Life & Legacy Planning’. Contact us today to get your plan started.
This article is a service of Leslie V. Marenco, Personal Family Lawyer®. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session,™ during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session.