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 altogether 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 how it 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, "simple" turns out almost never to 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 parents, then other closest living family members. If you are single with no children, your assets typically go to your parents, 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 without a plan, it might seem like things would go fairly smoothly, but that’s not always the case. In North Carolina, a surviving spouse shares the estate with the children, and their share depends on whether there is one child or more than one. If you’re married, but have children from a previous relationship, they can end up owning assets together. 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.
If you are married and die without children, but one or both of your parents are living, your spouse must split estate assets with them. North Carolina doesn't just give "everything" to the surviving spouse. The only time that is the case is when there are no children and no parents living at the time of your death.
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 families are torn apart by these conflicts all the time, even when there isn't significant financial wealth involved.
As your Personal Family Lawyer®, I 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, stressful 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 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.
As part of your comprehensive planning with Snider Law, PLLC, 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 fund and maintain ongoing funding to ensure the trust 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 nearly $1 billion in North Carolina! And that’s very often 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 I 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. In addition to helping you create a comprehensive asset inventory, we have systems in place to make sure that inventory stays consistently updated throughout your lifetime.
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.
I 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.
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, I’ll wrap up my 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 scheduling a 15-minute consultation or a Life & Legacy Planning Session. Your Life & Legacy 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.
This article is a service of Jeni Snider, Personal Family Lawyer®. I do not just draft documents; I ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death for you and the people you love. That's why I offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love.