No one ever plans to be sick or disabled. Yet, it’s this kind of planning that can make all the difference in an emergency.
Estate planning involves actively thinking about and planning for frightening topics like death, old age, unexpected illness, and crippling disability, and 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 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.
1. Leaving No Estate Plan At All
If you die without an estate plan, the court will decide who inherits your assets, and this can lead to all sorts of problems. Who is entitled to your property is determined by our state’s intestate succession laws, which hinge largely upon whether you are married and if you have children. Spouses and children are given top priority, followed by your other closest living family members.
If you are single with no children, and have no plan, your assets typically will go through probate and what’s left will be distributed to your parents and siblings, and then more distant relatives if you have no living parents or siblings. If no living relatives can be located, your assets go to the state. It’s important to note that state intestacy laws only apply to blood relatives, so unmarried partners and close friends would get nothing. If you want someone outside of your family to inherit your assets, having a plan is an absolute must.
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.
At de Jesus Law Group, 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.
2. Thinking A Will Alone Is Enough
Lots of people, particularly older folks, believe that a will is the only estate planning tool they need. While a will is a fundamental part of nearly every adult’s estate plan, which can ensure that your assets go where you want them to go in the event of your death, using a will by itself comes with some serious limitations, including the following:
- Wills require your family to go through the court process known as probate, which can not only be lengthy and expensive, it’s also completely open to the public and frequently creates ugly conflicts among your loved ones.
- Wills don’t offer you any protection if become incapacitated by illness or injury and are unable to make your own medical, financial, and legal decisions.
- Wills don’t cover jointly owned assets or those with beneficiary designations, such as life insurance policies and 401(k) plans.
- Wills don’t provide any protection or guidance for when and how your heirs take control of their inheritance.
- Naming guardians for your minor children in your will can leave them vulnerable to being placed in the care of strangers.
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.
3. Creating A Trust & Not Properly Funding It
Many people now know that a trust can keep your family out of court, and you may think you can just go online to set up your own trust, or have a lawyer do it with you as a one-size-fits all solution. And while that might be true, particularly if you have very simple assets and few family members, even in that case, you are likely to overlook one of the most important parts of creating a trust: “funding” it.
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.
At our law firm, Hector and Irene 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 us at de Jesus Law Group to ensure it works exactly as you intended.
4. Not Leaving An Up-To-Date Inventory Of Assets
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.
5. Failing To Regularly Review & Update Your Estate Plan
In addition to keeping an updated asset inventory, it’s vital that you regularly review and update all of your planning documents. Far too often people prepare a will or trust , then put it into a drawer or on a shelf, and forget about it.
Yet, an estate plan is not a one-and-done deal. As time passes, your life circumstances change, the laws change, and your assets change, you must update your plan to reflect these changes—that is, if you want your plan to actually work for your loved ones and keep them out of court and conflict.
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.
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 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 expense 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 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 estate planning 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 of Florida. If your chosen executor doesn’t meet those requirements, he or she cannot serve.
Moreover, Florida requires the person you name as your executor to get a bond, which is like an insurance policy before he or she can serve. Although an executor can request to waive bond, 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.
Hector and Irene de Jesus, can 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 at de Jesus Law Group rather than relying on DIY our out-dated 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 haven’t named guardians for your kids yet, use the link below to find out how you can take care of this critical task right now. And 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, if you’ve named guardians for your kids in your will, 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 at de Jesus Law Group to schedule a Legal Life 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 raising 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 with your unique asset profile, family dynamics, and budget. At de Jesus Law Group, 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. Contact us today to get your plan started.