What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

  1. Failing to sign a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Estate planning is critically important to protect you, your family and your hard-earned assets—during your lifetime, in the event of your incapacity, and upon your death. We all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets you have. In addition to having a will, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to your estate planning documents.
  2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner. This may lead to increased income tax liability, and the designation of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy can affect whether the proceeds are subject to creditors’ claims.

There’s another mistake that impacts people with minor children, which is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming that person as beneficiary of their life insurance, instead of leaving it to a trust for the child. A minor child can’t receive that money. It also exposes the money to the beneficiary’s creditors and spouse.

  1. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Unless a power of attorney for property is signed, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions and pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

Do Name Changes Need to Be Reflected in Estate Planning Documents?

When names change, executing documents with the person’s prior name can become problematic. For example, what about a daughter who was named as a health care representative by her parents several years ago, who marries and changes her name? Then, to make matters more complicated, add the fact that the couple’s daughter-in-law has the same first name, but a different middle name. That’s the situation presented in the article “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan” from nwi.com.

When a person’s name changes, many documents need to be changed, including items like driver’s licenses, passports, insurance policies, etc. The change of a name isn’t just about the person who created the estate plan but also to their executors, heirs, beneficiaries and those who have been named with certain legal powers through power of attorney (POA) and health care power of attorney.

It’s not an unusual situation, but it does have to be addressed. It’s pretty common to include additional identifiers in the documents. For example, let’s say the will says I leave my house to my daughter Samantha Roberts. If Samantha gets married and changes her last name, it can be reasonably assumed that she can be identified. In some cases, the document may be able to stay the same.

In other instances, the difference will be incorporated through the use of the acronym AKA—Also Known As. That is used when a person’s name is different for some reason. If the deed to a home says Mary Green, but the person’s real name is Mary G. Jones, the term used will be Mary Green A/K/A Mary G. Jones.

Sometimes when a person’s name has changed completely, another acronym is use: N/K/A, or Now Known As. For example, if Jessica A. Gordon marries or divorces and changes her name to Jessica A. Jones, the phrase Jessica A. Gordon N/K/A Jessica A. Jones would be used.

However, in the situation noted above, most attorneys to want to have the documents changed to reflect the name change. First, there are two people in the family with similar names. It is possible that someone could claim that the person wished to name the other person. It may not be a strong case, but challenges have been made over smaller matters.

Second is that the document being discussed is a healthcare designation. Usually when a health care power of attorney form is being used, it’s in an emergency. Would a doctor make a daughter prove that she is who she says she is? It seems unlikely, but the risk of something like that happening is too great. It is much easier to simply have the document updated.

In most matters, when there is a name change, it’s not a big deal. However, in estate planning documents, where there are risks about being able to make decisions in a timely manner or to mitigate the possibility of an estate challenge, a name change to update documents is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of trouble in the future.

Reference: nwi.com (October 20, 2019) “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan”

How Do I Calculate My Executor’s Fee?

An executor’s fee is the amount of money that’s charged by the individual who’s been named or appointed as the executor of the probate estate for handling all of the necessary tasks in the probate administration.

If you’ve been appointed an executor of someone’s estate, you may be entitled to a fee for your services.

The executor or personal representative fee could be based upon a variety of factors. Some of these factors may be dependent upon the law in your state, says nj.com’s recent article, “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

In most states, the executor fee is set by statute. For example, in New Jersey, it is 5% of the first $200,000 of assets taken in by the executor, 3.5% of the next $800,000 of assets, and 2% on anything in excess of $1 million. Likewise, California has a sliding scale based on the amount of the estate.

However, in Minnesota and Nebraska, the law states that the fee should be “reasonable.”

The amount of work involved is determined by the specific estate. The executor is generally responsible for collecting the estate assets, paying the debts and taxes (if any) and then giving what’s remaining to the heirs.

If you elect to take the commission, it’s taxable income which must be shown on your personal income tax return.

In New Jersey, if there are co-executors, the statute says that an additional 1% can be included to the commission. However, any one executor cannot receive more than the amount to which a sole executor is entitled.

Note that the executor only receives a commission on what he or she takes control of as executor.

This means that the executor doesn’t get a commission on assets that have beneficiary designations on death or that are jointly owned with right of survivorship. These assets pass outside of the will and the executor doesn’t take possession of these assets.

In many instances, the probate estate of the first spouse to die is less than the second. That’s because many of the assets were held jointly with right of survivorship. As a result, they aren’t probate assets and are not subject to the commission.

If that’s the case, the commission on the first spouse’s estate would be much less than the commission on the second estate.

Reference: nj.com (October 10, 2019) “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan?

It’s not uncommon for the intent of an individual’s will and trust to be overridden by beneficiary designations that weren’t chosen carefully.

Some people think that naming a beneficiary should be a simple job, and they try to do it themselves. Others don’t want to bother their attorney with what seems like a straightforward issue. A well-intentioned financial advisor could also complete the change of beneficiary form incorrectly.

Beneficiary designations are often used for life insurance and retirement benefits, but more frequently, they’re also being used for brokerage and bank accounts. People trying to avoid probate may name a “payable on death” beneficiary of an account. However, they don’t know that doing this may undermine their existing estate plan. It’s best to consult with your attorney to make certain that your named beneficiaries are consistent with your estate planning documents.

Wealth Advisor’s “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan” lists seven issues you need to think about, when making your beneficiary designations.

Cash. If your will leaves cash to various people or charities, you need to make certain that sufficient money comes into your estate, so your executor can pay these gifts.

Estate tax liability. If assets do pass outside your estate to a named beneficiary, make certain there will be sufficient money in your estate and trust to pay your estate tax lability. If all your assets pass by beneficiary designation, your executor may not have enough money to pay the estate taxes that may be due at your death.

Protect your tax savings. If you have created trusts for estate tax purposes, make sure that sufficient assets flow into your trusts to maximize the estate tax savings. Designating individuals as beneficiaries instead of your trusts may defeat the purpose of your estate tax planning. If there aren’t enough assets in your trust, the estate tax provisions may not work. As a result, your heirs may eventually end up paying more in taxes.

Accurate records. Be sure the information you have on the change of beneficiary form is accurate. This is particularly important if the beneficiary is a trust—the trust name, trustee information and tax identification number all need to be right.

Spouses as beneficiaries. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary of their life insurance policy, followed by their trust as the secondary beneficiary. However, this may defeat your estate planning, especially if you have children from a first marriage, or if you don’t want your spouse to control the assets. If your trust provides for your surviving spouse on your death, he or she will be taken care of from the trust.

No last minute changes. Some people change their beneficiary designations at the last minute, because they’re nervous about assets flowing into a trust. This could lead to increased estate tax payments and litigation from heirs who were left out.

Qualified accounts. Don’t name a trust as the beneficiary of qualified accounts, like an IRA, without consulting with your attorney. Trusts that receive such qualified money need to contain special provisions for income tax purposes.

Be sure that your beneficiary designations work with your estate planning, rather than against it.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (October 8, 2019) “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan”

How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and hand wrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”

Do It Yourself Wills Go Wrong–Fast

What happens when a well-meaning person decides to create a will, after reading information from various sources on the internet? There’s no end of problems, as described in the Glen Rose Reporter’s article “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry.”

The woman started her plan by deeding her home to her three children, retaining a life estate for herself.

By doing so, she has eliminated the possibility of either selling the house or taking out a reverse mortgage on the home, if she ever needs to tap its equity.

Since she is neither an estate planning attorney nor an accountant, she missed the tax issue completely.

By deeding the house, the transfer has caused a taxable transaction. Therefore, she needs to file a gift tax return because of it. At the same time, her life estate diminishes the value of the gift, and her estate is not large enough to require her to actually pay any tax.

She was puzzled to learn this, since there wasn’t any tax when her husband died and left his share of the house to her. That’s because the transfer of community property between spouses is not a taxable event.

However, that wasn’t the only tax issue to consider. When the house passed to her from her husband, she got a stepped-up basis, meaning that since the house had appreciated in value since she bought it, she only had to pay taxes on the difference in the increased value at the time of her husband’s death and what she sold the property for.

By transferring the house to the children, they don’t get a stepped-up basis. This doesn’t apply to a gift made during one’s lifetime. When the children get ready to sell the home, the basis will be the value that was established at the time of her husband’s death, even if the property increased in value by the time of the mother’s death. The children will have to pay tax on the difference between that value, which is likely to be quite lower, and the sale price of the house.

There are many overlapping issues that go into creating an estate plan. The average person who doesn’t handle estate planning on a regular basis (and even an attorney who does not handle estate planning on a regular basis), doesn’t know how one fact can impact another.

Sitting down with an estate planning attorney, who understands the tax issues surrounding estate planning, gifting, real estate, and inheritances, will protect the value of the assets being passed to the next generation and protect the family. It’s money well spent.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (September 17, 2019) “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry”

Am I Too Young to Think About Estate Planning?

It’s wise for younger generations to consider estate planning, advises The Cleveland Jewish News in the recent article “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that an estate plan is only for older people or the ultra-wealthy. Many younger adults have been financially successful and also have experienced changes with marriage and families.

A young married couple should talk about their vision and goals for their legal affairs, in case something happens to one of them or within their family.

Estate plans provide some certainty into an otherwise uncertain life. There are many reasons to start early. One reason is that you never know what’s going to happen. You want to make certain that all of your assets are in place.

When creating an estate plan, there are a few things that younger people should consider, such as making sure all their accounts have named a beneficiary. This includes life insurance, retirement, and checking and savings accounts. These beneficiaries need to be updated for life and family changes.

Many younger adults will be fine with a will and a health care power of attorney. However, marriage is a time when people have more complexity in their professional lives. This can include starting a business, becoming leaders at companies and needing more complex and protective plans.

While younger generations are known to be independent and to try to meet all their needs online, estate plans should be treated differently. There are numerous online tools or ‘do-it-yourself’ strategies, but professional legal assistance can make it an easier and a more thorough process.

Start as early as you can and set the foundation for more complex planning that will come in the future. This preparation will mean less stress for those left behind, after you pass away.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (September 19, 2019) “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too”

Americans Still Aren’t Planning for The After Life

Think Advisor reported on a survey conducted by a financial services firm that revealed good news and bad news about Americans and estate planning. In the article “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey,” the firm Edward Jones found that two-thirds of those with an advisor have not discussed estate goals and legacy plans. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 77% said estate and legacy strategies are important for everyone, not just wealthy individuals.

Most people do understand how a properly prepared estate plan puts them in control of what happens to the people that matter most to them, including minor children, their spouses and partners. It also indicates that they recognize how estate planning is necessary to protect themselves. That means having documents, like Power of Attorney and Medical Health Care Power of Attorney.

However, the recognition does not follow with the necessary steps to put a plan into place. That is the part that is worrisome.

Without a will, assets could be subject to the costly and time-consuming process of probate, where the entire will becomes a public document that anyone can look at. Nosy neighbors, creditors and relatives all having access to personal and financial information, is not something anyone wants to happen. However, by failing to plan, that’s exactly what happens.

The survey of 2,007 adults showed little sense of urgency to having legacy conversations. Only about a third of millennials and Gen Xers said they’d spoken with their advisors about the future. Surprisingly, only 38% of baby boomers had done so—and they are the generation most likely to need these plans in place in the immediate future.

Where do you start? Begin with the beneficiary designations. Check all investment accounts, bank accounts, insurance policies and retirement accounts. Most, if not all, of these financial documents should have a place to name a beneficiary, and some may permit a secondary beneficiary to be named. Make sure that you name a person you want to receive these assets, and that the person named is still in your life.

The beneficiary designation is more powerful than your will. The person named in the beneficiary designation will receive the asset, no matter what your will says. If you don’t want an ex to receive life insurance policy proceeds, make sure to check the names on your life insurance beneficiary designations.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. If you haven’t updated your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for an update. It’s equally important if you should become incapacitated and you want someone else to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf, to have up to date Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms.

Reference: Think Advisor (September 16, 2019) “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey”

What is the significance of a Pour-Over Will?

If the goal of estate planning is to avoid probate, it seems counterintuitive that one would sign a will, but the pour-over will is an essential part of some estate plans, reports the Times Herald-Record’s article “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

If a person dies with assets in their name alone, those assets go through probate. The pour-over will names the trust as the beneficiary of probate assets, so the trust controls who receives the inheritance. The pour-over will works as a backup plan to the trust, and it also revokes past wills and codicils.

Living trusts became more widely used after a 1991 AARP study concluded that families should be using trusts rather than wills, and that wills were obsolete. Trusts were suddenly not just for the wealthy. Middle class people started using trusts rather than wills, to save time and money and avoid estate battles among family members. Trusts also served to keep financial and personal affairs private. Wills that are probated are public documents that anyone can review.

Even a simple probate lasts about a year, before beneficiaries receive inheritances. A trust can be settled in months. Regarding the cost of probate, it is estimated that between 2—4% of the cost of settling an estate can be saved by using a trust instead of a will.

When a will is probated, family members receive a notice, which allows them to contest the will. When assets are in a trust, there is no notification. This avoids delay, costs and the aggravation of a will contest.

Wills are not a bad thing, and they do serve a purpose. However, this specific legal document comes with certain legal requirements.

The will was actually invented more than 500 years ago, by King Henry VIII of England. Many people still think that wills are the best estate planning document, but they may be unaware of the government oversight and potential complications when a will is probated.

There are other ways to avoid probate on death. First, when a beneficiary is added to assets like bank accounts, IRAs, life insurance policies, or stock funds, those assets transfer directly to the beneficiary upon the death of the owner. Second, when an asset is owned JTWROS, or as “joint tenants with the right of survivorship,” the ownership interest transfers to the surviving owners.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to talk about how probate may impact your heirs and see if they believe the use of a trust and a pour-over will would make the most sense for your family.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 13, 2019) “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

Still Waiting to Update Your Estate Plan?

If you are wondering if Franklin’s handwritten wills are valid, join the club. With an estate valued at least $80 million, it’s good news that some kind of will was found to divide up her assets. However, says Daily Reckoning in the article “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates,” there’s no guarantee that those wills are going to hold up in court.

The problem with Aretha’s family? It proves how important it is to have a properly executed will and one that is also up to date. It’s different for every family and every person, but if you’ve done any of the following, you need to update your will.

Moved to a different state. The laws that govern estate law are set by each state, so if you move to a different state, your entire will or parts of it may not work. If your estate is deemed invalid, then your wishes won’t necessarily be followed. Your family will suffer the consequences. For example, if your old state required only one witness for a will to be valid and you move to a state that requires two witnesses, then your executor is going to have an uphill battle. Some states also allow self-written wills but have very specific rules about what is and is not permitted.

Bought new property. People make this mistake all the time. They assume that because their will says they are gifting their home to their children, updating the new address doesn’t matter. However, it does. Your will must specify exactly what home and what address you are gifting. If you have a second property or a new property, update the information on your will.

Downsized your stuff. Sometimes people get excited about getting rid of their possessions and accidentally discard or donate something they had promised to someone in their will. If your will doesn’t reflect your new, more minimal lifestyle, your heirs won’t get what you promised to them. Instead, they may get nothing. Therefore, review your will and distribute the possessions you do have.

Gifting something early and forgetting what was in your will. If your will specifies that your oldest son gets your mother’s mahogany desk, but you gave it to your niece two months ago, you may create some awkward moments for your family. Whenever gifting something with great sentimental or financial value, be sure to review your will.

Having a boom or a bust. If your finances take a dramatic turn, for better or worse, you may create problems for heirs, if your will is not revised to reflect the changes. Let’s say one account has grown with the market, but another has taken a nosedive. Did you give your two children a 50/50 split, or does one child now stand to inherit a jumbo-sized pension, while the other is going to get little or nothing?

Had a change of heart. Has your charity of choice changed? Or did a charity you dedicated years to change its mission or close? Again, review your will.

Had a death in the family. If a spouse dies before you, your will may list alternative recipients. However, you probably want to review your will. You may want to make changes regarding how certain assets are titled. If a family member who was a beneficiary or executor dies, then you’ll need to update your will.

Your estate planning attorney will review your will and talk about the various changes in your life. Life changes over the course of time, and your will needs to reflect those changes.

Reference: Daily Reckoning (Sep. 12, 2019) “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates”

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