What Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Clients often make these estate planning mistakes which jeopardize family harmony and expose families to anxiety, delay and unnecessary cost.

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some estate planning mistakes to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger.  He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared estate plan could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety.  This example also points out that even brilliant legal minds make mistakes if they aren’t experts in this area!

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.  Clients often confront this estate planning mistake at this time of year as part of new years resolutions or as part of a financial check-up with their financial advisors, so now is an excellent time to consider it.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions, at least to the individuals in charge of the plan. If you are leaving more uneven amounts to children for example, it may be a kindness to explain why to your love ones.  Otherwise, they will be forced to come up with their own answers, which may lead to fighting. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.  Some of the worst estate disputes I’ve ever dealt with were over sentimental items.

Clients often ask about this topic, so see this article if you are interested in more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-avoid-family-fighting-in-my-estate/  

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have appropriate incapacity planning documents such as financial and medical Powers of Attorney so that you may speak with each other’s financial institutions and medical providers.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.  Happily this is a very easy estate planning mistake to correct, though you should consult an attorney on how to properly utilize your trust.

Don’t be naive about people you put in charge of your estate plan.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances or other self-serving motivations. However, we see this all the time. This concern must be confronted honestly, even when it is children, during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

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New Digital Asset Law Passes in Pennsylvania

The new PA digital asset law highlights the need to plan for your loved ones to have access to your digital assets after you pass.

More and more of our lives are lived online. We bank online, use email for everything, have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts, keep photos on the cloud and have usernames and passwords for virtually every part of our online presence.  All of these things could be considered digital asset examples. However, what happens when we become disabled or die and our executor or a fiduciary needs to access these digital assets? Pennsylvania recently joined many states that have passed a law intended to make accessing these accounts easier, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

The official name of the law is the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, or RUFADAA. Pennsylvania is one of the last states in the nation—48th—to adopt this type of legislation, with the passage of Act 72 of 2020 (FYI Texas readers, the Texas legislature passed the Texas Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (TRUFADAA) in 2017). Until now, Pennsylvania didn’t allow concrete authority to access digital information to fiduciaries. The problem: the ability to access the information is still subject to the agreement that the user has with the online provider. That’s the “yes” we give automatically when presented with a software terms of service agreement.

Online service providers give deference to “legacy” contacts that a user can name if authority to a third party to access their accounts is given. However, most people don’t name a successor to have access or the successor is unaware of it, and most apps don’t have a way to do this.  I just this week received my first prompt from Facebook to name a legacy successor contact, and if Facebook is just starting that process, you can assume most other apps are far behind.

These laws are necessary because administering an estate with digital assets presents unique challenges.  With digital assets, first you have to locate the person’s digital assets (and chances are good you’ll miss a few). There’s no shoebox of old receipts, or letters and bills coming in the mail to identify digital property. The custodians of the online information (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, etc.) still rely on those contracts between the user and the digital platform.

Under the digital asset law, if the user does not make use of the online tool to name a successor, or if one is not offered, then the user can dictate the terms of access or non-access to the online accounts through estate planning documents, including a will, trust or power of attorney.  Most quality estate planning attorneys have included access to such assets in the documents they prepare, and we certainly do.

Here are some tips to help administer your digital assets:

Make a list of all your online accounts, their URL address, usernames and passwords. Share the list only with someone you trust. You will be surprised at just how many you have.  I did this a few years ago and was surprised to find it covered four pages.  You should also consider recording login information to your devices where you might store information.  Often people don’t keep paper records, so you can look for information on laptops, phones and similar devices.  Our estate planning binders actually provide a section to do exactly this.

Review the terms of service for each account to see if you have the ability to provide a name for a person who is authorized to access the account on your behalf, such as the Facebook example I provided.

Make sure your estate planning documents are aligned with your service contract preferences. Does your Power of Attorney mention access to your digital accounts? Depending on the potential value, sentimental and otherwise, of your digital assets, you may need to revise your estate plan.  This is especially true as our lives are likely to become even more digital in the future.

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, especially the practical components, Mary Galligan did an excellent article on this topic you can find here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/does-your-estate-planning-include-your-online-account-passwords/

Remember to never put specific private information in your estate plan such as account numbers, URLs, usernames or passwords, since your will becomes a public document once it is probated and your other documents may be shared as well. Your estate planning attorney will know how to best accomplish documenting your digital assets, while enabling access to them for your fiduciaries.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Aug. 24, 2020) “New Pa. law recognizes digital assets in estates.”

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Estate Planning with a Business

Estate planning with a business addresses owner succession, protecting assets and the smooth operation of the business.

Estate planning with a business is different. If you have children, ownership shares in a business, or even in more than one business, a desire to protect your family and business if you became disabled, or charitable giving goals, then you need an estate plan attuned to those needs. The recent article “Estate planning for business owners and executives” from The Wealth Advisor explains why business owners, parents and executives need estate plans.

An estate plan is more than a way to distribute wealth. It can also:

  • Establish a Power of Attorney, if you can’t make decisions due to an illness or injury.
  • Identify a guardianship plan for minor children, naming a caregiver of your choice.
  • Coordinating beneficiary designations with your estate plan. This includes retirement plans, life insurance, annuities and some jointly owned property.
  • Create trusts for beneficiaries to afford them asset or divorce protection.
  • Identify professional management for assets in those trusts if appropriate.
  • Minimize taxes and maximize privacy through the use of planning techniques.
  • Create a structure for your philanthropic goals.

An estate plan ensures that fiduciaries are identified to oversee and distribute assets as you want. Estate planning with a business especially focuses on managing ownership assets, which requires more sophisticated planning. Ideally, you have a management and ownership succession plan for your business, and both should be well-documented and integrated with your overall estate plan.   See here for a deeper dive into business succession planning.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/business-succession-planning-in-your-estate-plan/

Some business owners choose to separate their Power of Attorney documents, so one person or more who know their business well, as well as the POA holder or co-POA, are able to make decisions about the business, while family members are appointed POA for non-business decisions.

Depending on how your business is structured, the post-death transfer of the business may need to be a part of your estate planning with a business. A current buy-sell agreement may be needed, especially if there are more than two owners of the business.

An estate plan, like a succession plan, is not a set-it-and-forget it document. Regular reviews will ensure that any changes are documented, from the size of your overall estate to the people you choose to make key decisions.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (July 28, 2020) “Estate planning for business owners and executives”

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