For many of us, the estate planning process can seem tedious and overwhelming, or even like a foreign world to someone who is unfamiliar with the legal realm. To make sense of the complexities of the law we often turn to Google for answers. Perhaps you stumbled upon this article through that search engine. In the Age of Google, information can be found at the click of a mouse. Need to know how to write a will? There are many articles out there guiding you. Need an actual will form? There are many to be found through a simple search. However, without a firm understanding of estate planning and its intricacies, mistakes are made. And these mistakes can be costly. As you read this post, the most important thing to keep in mind is that all these missteps are completely avoidable with the right planning.
Mistake #1: Procrastinating on Creating Your Estate Plan
The biggest mistake you can make with creating an estate plan is not creating one at all. Determining what you want to happen with your assets when you die isn't difficult, but many people procrastinate on following through with their good intentions. “I will always have time to plan my estate later,” they think. “Creating a will is only for old people.”
It's great to decide who you want to inherit your assets, but if you never put your intentions in a legal document, your assets will be distributed according to state law. Estate laws are written in a way that your immediate family members receive a specified percentage of your properties and accounts. Sometimes, this aligns with what you would want, but for most people it does not.
Studies show that more than 70% of adults do not have an estate plan in place when they die. As an attorney who specializes in estate planning, my top priority is to lower that percentage. Our firm's mission is to protect what matters most to the people in our community. We want your success to continue to benefit the people you care about, even after your death. To make that possible, it's essential that you start the process as soon as possible, rather than putting it off into an endless “tomorrow.”
Setting up an appointment is often the hardest part of creating an estate plan. Taking that first step is where people procrastinate the most. They would rather punt than go on offense. But once an initial appointment is created and you explain to your attorney your goals and what is important to you, your attorney can start drafting the initial documents. After the first legal document is executed and signed, you can revise the terms of your estate plan as needed throughout your lifetime, while resting assured that you have a foundational plan in place.
Understand that you don't have to rush the steps of the process; you just have to get the ball rolling. After that, its easy. It's good to be conscientious about your estate design and to think through what you want your plan to look like. Just don't let yourself procrastinate so long on creating your estate plan that you become part of the 70% that dies without a plan in place.
Mistake #2: Not Understanding Estate Planning Options and Documents
The expression “Ignorance is bliss” should not apply to planning for your family. Let's be clear: If you do not understand your estate plan, you do not have an estate plan. Take the time to sit down with your attorney and review your plan. Ask questions. Actively listen. Draw diagrams full of arrows and figures if that helps. You do not have to understand all the nuances of estate or tax law, but at least know how your family will be protected once you are no longer around.
Mistake #3: Failing to Communicate the Terms of Your Estate Plan
Legally, when you create a will or a trust, the only people who immediately need to know the terms of the document are you and your attorney. However, it's important to inform involved parties so that your loved ones are aware of what will happen with your assets when you die.
If you create a will, your executor should be aware of his or her responsibilities before the time of your death. Finding out you are the executor of a will after a loved one's death is not likely a pleasant surprise for anyone. For an executor to carry out duties in a timely, effective manner, he or she needs to be prepared for the responsibilities and be informed of your wishes. That means you need to communicate with your appointed executor before you reach death's door. Likewise, if you create a trust, it's a good idea to make your trustee aware of how you want the accounts and the properties in the trust to be managed before the assets are distributed to the beneficiaries.
While it's not required to inform beneficiaries, it is advantageous for your loved ones to know that they are heirs to your estate. At the time of your death, you want your family to have the time and peace they need to grieve and get their life back in order. You don't want them scrambling to solve the mystery of who is inheriting what.
Lastly, you should tell at least one person other than your attorney where you keep your original copy of your legal documents. Whether you store your original will in a safety deposit box at the bank, in a personal safe, or in a shoe box under your bed, it's important that someone knows where to find the original copy of your will when you die.
Mistake #4: Forgetting About the Follow-Through
In Mistake #1, explains why it's so important to set up your first appointment with your attorney. But following up and reviewing your estate plan is equally as critical. Remember life changes. Nothing stays the same forever. For example, what if your child marries someone you do not particularly approve? What if one of your beneficiaries has passed away? Does your current plan have answers to those questions? Follow up is critical to an estate plan. As you read this, ask yourself: Is your life the same as it was 5 years ago? What about 10 years ago? Most likely not. Remember to update and revise your estate plan as the years pass. What works today may not work in the future.
Mistake #5: Creating a Complex Estate Plan Online Instead of with an Attorney
The law has never been as easy to access than it is today. Companies like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Willing have made obtaining legal forms easier than ever. While these companies may seem like easier, more cost-effective options, online legal forms and legal advice can never match the benefits of meeting with a licensed, experienced attorney in person. Read our post to learn more about the many pitfalls of creating legal documents online, and be wary of legal advertisements on the web. Sometimes these companies are good in a pinch, but if you want to create a through and comprehensive estate plan, it's a much better bet to contact a competent estate planning lawyer.