If you fail to create an estate plan, your state’s laws will determine who will inherit your assets and if you have minor children, the court will appoint a guardian to raise your children. The state's laws may not be what you had in mind for your legacy. However, this happens if you fail to have an estate plan, as described in the article “AVOID THESE (estate planning) MISTAKES!” from Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals.
Failing to have a plan is the most common mistake Americans make. Unfortunately, less than half of all U.S. adults have estate planning documents in place, and only 36 percent of parents with minor children have end-of-life plans. You may feel estate planning is optional. However, everyone over 18 should have a plan.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. However, a simple will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney indicating who should receive your assets upon death and advance directives indicating who will handle medical (health care proxy) decisions and financial power of attorney decisions in case of incapacity is a good start. Once your plan is in place, reviewing it every three to five years is a good idea.
Revocable and/or irrevocable trusts are excellent ways to avoid probate, the surrogate court’s process to validate a will and executor and specify how funds will be distributed to beneficiaries. Using a revocable trust and properly funding can eliminate the need for some or all of your estate to pass through probate, depending on how the trust is structured.
Far too many people think they can avoid having an estate plan by depending on beneficiary designations on all assets. For example, let’s say you have an investment account in your name alone, with your spouse and children as beneficiaries. From a tax planning perspective, you may lose tax planning opportunities if funds are passed directly to a beneficiary spouse. If a beneficiary is a minor and receives the assets, the court must appoint a guardian. Those funds would then be held in control of the court until the minor beneficiary reaches the age of majority. A trust for a minor child is one way to solve this problem.
If a named beneficiary dies before you without a secondary or surviving beneficiary, the account will become part of the probate estate. If you have received Medicaid benefits, whether home care or nursing home care, the asset will be subject to any claims made by Medicaid or creditors.
Estate planning attorneys devote a fair amount of time to fixing the mistakes made by people downloading online forms. They may be inexpensive initially. However, mistakes and/or omissions can’t be corrected if an individual becomes incapacitated or deceased. In addition, when the forms don’t comply with state-specific laws, they may become invalid.
If family members or trusted friends don’t know you have an estate plan or don’t know where documents are located, it makes their tasks very difficult. The person you name as your health care power of attorney, for instance, needs to know where all of your advance directives are located and be able to access them in the event you become incapacitated. Similarly, your executor needs to know where wills and trust documents can be found. Equally important is discussing your wishes for burial, funeral and other arrangements.
Having a plan for incapacity and death is a gift to those you love, ensuring they know what to do, sparing them from a frantic search for time-sensitive documents and alleviating them from guessing what you would have wanted.
Reference: Westchester & Fairfield County Business Journals (March 16, 2023) “AVOID THESE (estate planning) MISTAKES!”