You spend the first half of your adult life trying to achieve financial security and the second half of your life trying to maintain it. This adage is why many people spend substantial time and effort maximizing their legacy goals in their estate plan, ensuring their wishes come to pass. Your life’s work and ability to provide for your family provide a gratifying feeling for you and your heirs. Your careful planning, however, can go awry when last-minute changes become part of the mix, often guided by advice from well-meaning family and friends but not a professional estate planning attorney.
There are five common errors that people make that will upend your estate planning:
Leaving money to someone while you are alive but not changing your will. Frequently people include cash gifts in their will. For instance, a favorite nephew may inherit $50,000, a childhood friend $100,000, and even a housekeeper may receive $10,000 for loyal service. It is quite common when family members meet after a loved one has passed to hear that the deceased has already gifted these cash amounts.
The mistake is that the gift is given, yet your will continues to reflect the named individual should be given what has already been received. In the absence of an updated will reflecting the gift, the probate process will still award the individual named the cash amount or, in essence, an additional gift. While some recipients will approach the gift during their lifetime as an advancement on inheritance, others may not agree, and the argument may wind up in court.
Insufficient assets are funding your trust. You may have created your trust years ago, and its assets may have decreased in value and be insufficient to cover the costs of all the gifts associated with your trust. Your good intentions in creating the trust can evaporate, leaving some inheritors short-changed or receiving nothing at all without proper management and preservation of the trust’s assets.
It is good to remember the rule that cash gifts get paid first. For example, if you leave your sister one million dollars and the rest in trust to your children, and you die with assets totaling $1,100,000, your sister will receive her cash outright while only $100,000 will remain in trust for your children. If there is no cash to fund the trust, the trust provisions are zero-sum, and the unlucky heir will have to learn of the unfortunate circumstances.
All assets do not pass through your will. Your estate division is primarily likely to be probate and non-probate assets. Just because you believe your assets’ aggregate is enough to satisfy your gifting, not all assets will pass through the will. You must understand the difference between probate and non-probate assets. Non-probate assets often pass as a beneficiary designation or joint ownership outside of a will. Also, consider the need to deduct any outstanding debts, expenses, and taxes in the valuation of your assets.
You are adding a joint owner of accounts or real estate. Joint ownership seems a simple solution bypassing excessive planning. Some people use this as an alternative to formal estate planning. Adding a joint owner, however, can create serious problems. Yes, the bank account or piece of real estate will quickly become wholly owned by the survivor, and yet if your will is reliant on that asset to pay other inheritors, debts, expenses, or taxes, there may be a cascade of problems after you die. The joint owner now owns the account and does not have to use the amounts for those purposes. Adding a joint owner can lead to will contests and even prolonged court battles, so be sure your estate planning attorney agrees that the option of joint ownership is a sound one in your situation.
Changes to your beneficiary designations. If you make changes to your beneficiaries without speaking to your estate planning attorney, you can create all sorts of unintended results. This situation is particularly true in the case of life insurance. For instance, the policy can pay your trust to meet bequests or pay taxes and expenses. If you change the beneficiary, however, you will have to designate the money elsewhere to cover the existing bequests and taxes. In another case, if you have a retirement account payable to an individual inheritor but you change the beneficiary to your trust, you may create adverse income tax consequences.
These are just five of the more commonplace mistakes that can occur in your estate plan. Sadly, there are many others, and so caution and professional legal advice are crucial. While it is essential to review your estate planning documents regularly and perhaps make changes, it is imperative to do so under the advice of your attorney. What may seem like a harmless amendment or change may create unintended tax consequences, cut someone out of receiving an inheritance, or worse yet, set into motion a lengthy court battle that harms family relationships. Reviewing your estate planning documents with your attorney will ensure that your desired changes will address your new need without negatively impacting your overall intentions.