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 all together 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 and 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, here are 10 of the most common estate planning mistakes, starting with the worst blunder of all: failing to create an estate plan.
If you’re married with children and die with no plan, it might seem like things would go fairly smoothly, but that’s not always the case. If you’re married, but have children from a previous relationship, for example, the court could give everything to your spouse and leave your children with nothing. In another instance, you might be estranged from your kids or not trust them with money, but without a plan, state law controls who gets your assets, not you.
Moreover, dying without a plan could also cause your surviving loved ones to get into an ugly court battle over who has the most right to your property. Or if you become incapacitated, your loved ones could even get into conflict around your medical care. You may think this would never happen to your loved ones, but we see families torn apart by it all the time, even when there’s not significant financial wealth involved.
As a Personal Family Lawyer®, we will help you create a plan that handles your assets and your medical care in the exact manner you wish, taking into account all of your family dynamics, so your death or incapacity won’t be any more painful or expensive for your family than it needs to be.
Given these facts, if your estate plan consists of a will alone, you are missing out on many valuable safeguards for your assets, while also guaranteeing your family will have to go to court if you become incapacitated or when you die. Fortunately, all of the above issues can be effectively managed using a trust. That said, as you’ll see below, trusts are by no means a panacea—these documents come with their own unique drawbacks, especially if you try to prepare one on your own.
An unfunded trust is a trust that exists, but that doesn’t hold any of your assets because you didn’t retitle them properly, or because you acquired new assets after creating your trust. This is all too common, and if this is true for you, it will leave your family with a big mess, even though you have officially created your trust.
Funding your trust properly is extremely important, because if any assets are not properly funded, the trust won’t work, and your family will have to go to court in order to take ownership of that property. And when you acquire new assets after your trust is created, you must make sure those assets are properly funded into your trust as well.
While many lawyers will create a trust for you, few will ensure your assets are properly inventoried and funded into your trust, and even fewer will ensure the inventory of your assets is kept up-to-date as your life and assets change over time. This might sound crazy, but it’s actually common practice among many estate planning firms—but not ours.
As a Personal Family Lawyer® law firm, we will not only make sure all of your assets are properly titled when you initially create your trust, but we will also ensure that any new assets you acquire over the course of your life are inventoried and properly funded to your trust. This keeps your assets from being lost, and prevents your family from being inadvertently forced into court because your plan was never fully completed.
In light of these facts, if your estate plan includes a trust, it’s critical to work with a Personal Family Lawyer® to ensure it works exactly as you intended.
As mentioned above, even if you’ve properly funded your assets into your trust, your estate plan will be worthless if your heirs don’t know what you have or where to find it. In fact, there’s more than $58 billion dollars worth of lost assets in the U.S. Department of Unclaimed Property right now. And that’s all because someone died or became incapacitated without letting anyone know how to locate their assets.
This is especially critical for digital assets like cryptocurrency, social media, email, and data stored in the cloud, because if you haven’t properly addressed these assets in your estate plan, there’s a good chance they will be lost forever if something happens to you. For all of these reasons, creating and maintaining a comprehensive inventory of all of your assets is a standard part of every estate plan we create. With our support, you can rest assured that your family will know exactly what assets you own and how to locate them should anything happen to you.
But that’s not all. As a Personal Family Lawyer®, we will not only help you create a comprehensive asset inventory, we have systems in place to make sure that inventory stays consistently updated throughout your lifetime. This is such an important and urgent issue, we’ve even created a unique (and totally FREE) tool called a Personal Resource Map to help you get the inventory process started right now, by yourself, without the need for a lawyer.
To learn more, visit the Personal Resource Map website to watch a webinar by Ali Katz, founder of Personal Family Lawyer®, and then get your asset inventory started for free. That way, no matter what, if something happens to you, your family will know what you have, where it is, and how to find it.
Then, schedule a meeting with a Personal Family Lawyer® to incorporate your inventory with your other estate planning strategies.
We recommend reviewing your plan annually to make sure its terms are up to date. And be sure to immediately update your plan following major life events like divorce, births, deaths, and inheritances. We actually have built-in processes to make sure this happens—be sure to ask us about them.
Beyond sheer necessity, an annual life review can be a beautiful ritual that puts you at ease, and helps you to set the course of your life and keeps your life on course, knowing that you’ve got your affairs in order, all handled, and completely updated each year.
Next week, in part two, we’ll wrap up our list of the 10 most common estate-planning mistakes. Until then, if you are ready to get your estate planning handled and taken care of the right way with ease and affordability, start by contacting a local Personal Family Lawyer® for a Family Wealth Planning Session. Your Family Wealth Planning Session is custom-designed to your assets, your family, your wishes, and to educate you on the best way to reach your objectives for the people you love most.