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William "Zac" White, Attorney & Counselor at Law [email protected] (501) 365-3934 Hablamos Español

Estate Planning Mistakes You Should Avoid

In estate planning, the goal is to protect your assets, interests, and loved ones after you pass away. Sadly, many individuals make costly mistakes without proper advice and guidance from a qualified estate planning attorney. Beyond undermining your intent and diminishing your financial legacy, poor planning can create additional stress for your heirs in their time of grief.

Six common errors frequently happen during the estate planning process. These mistakes often occur because the complete financial picture was not fully considered. It is easiest to avoid estate planning mishaps by knowing what they are before you begin or looking for these errors when reviewing and updating your plan.

Reviewing Your Finances

Financial procrastination will always create problems. While examining your mortality and making end-of-life preparations is not a particularly fun activity, try viewing it as helping and enhancing your loved ones’ futures while creating a sense of peace during your own.

Preparing your finances uncovers the need for wills, trusts, and financial or healthcare powers of attorney documents are not solely the domain of the elderly. Putting off the drafting of legal documents necessary to protect yourself and your inheritors can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Understanding the Purpose of Estate Plans

By far, failing to understand the importance of an estate plan is a common mistake. Even if you do not have a lot of money, you need a will to protect any minor children you have by naming their guardians. You will also ensure your asset distribution to heirs is in accordance with your wishes when you die and names a representative to handle debt obligations, final taxes, and other estate administrative duties. Dying without a will or “intestate” can lead to dire consequences.

Updating Your Estate Plan

Outdated wills, forms, and powers of attorney create problems. If you made a will twenty years ago and have not reviewed and updated its contents, chances are it is out of date. Estate planning is not a set it and forget it proposition. Reviewing estate planning documents and beneficiary forms every two years is generally adequate, barring a major life change such as divorce, birth, death, remarriage, and even relocation to another state.

Beneficiaries without coordination can create expensive oversight. Beneficiary forms for retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, annuities, and life insurance policies may constitute a significant portion of your estate’s assets. These beneficiary forms are legally binding and will supersede the contents of your will. Failure to update beneficiary forms can lead to an ex-spouse receiving assets that preferably would go to your heirs. Routine checks of all beneficiary designations are best practices for estate planning.

Failing to title trust assets properly can lead to probate. While not everyone requires a trust, those who do must carefully retitle their assets into the name of the trust. Forgetting to add more recently purchased property or opening a new account requires you to title them into the trust to receive trust benefits. Whether real estate, cash, mutual funds, or stocks, if you fail to move the asset into the trust, they become subject to the probate court, possible tax consequences (depending on the trust type), and a public record of these assets.

Life Insurance Beneficiaries and Estate Taxes

Life insurance can trigger an estate tax. Properly handled, life insurance can provide heirs with liquidity without the sale of assets and tax consequences. However, if a wealthy individual dies while maintaining ownership of their life insurance policy, they may inadvertently create a tax event for their heirs. Although life insurance death benefits are not subject to state or federal income taxes, any “incident” of ownership by the decedent can create an inheritance tax.

An estate planning attorney can help shelter life insurance proceeds from high-value estates by gifting the existing policy to an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) or drafting a new trust to purchase a new policy where the trust is the owner and beneficiary. A policy owned by the trust does not create a taxable situation for death benefits. Your attorney’s careful structuring of this trust type is complex but can provide proper protection.

Protecting Your Children’s Assets

Joint ownership of assets with your children can lead to disastrous consequences. Naming your children as co-owners of assets, even digital, permits their creditors to access your money. The better way to address the situation is to give your adult child power of attorney and assign them as beneficiaries to a payable on death bank or brokerage account. This tactic permits them to access your funds if required during your lifetime. However, it keeps your assets from your child’s estate and away from their potential creditors.

Ultimately the biggest error you can make is not finding the right estate planning attorney to guide you. This specialized attorney receives training on avoiding probate, tax implications, and asset protection if you require long-term care. Proper planning with the right guidance will help you avoid costly estate planning mistakes and protect your family’s future financial well-being.

We hope you enjoyed this article. If you would like to discuss a personal legal matter, we would be happy to talk. Please contact our Canton office at (330) 588-6115.

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