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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Is Transferring the House to Children a Good Idea?

Clients frequently ask this question, especially as mom or dad is aging and perhaps living in assisted living or some other senior care arrangement.  Many try to do so using online forms, and find later that it was a mistake.  Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, but gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill or could effect eligibility for long term care benefits. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.  A capable elder law attorney can advise you on better ways to address this, as well as potential corrections if necessary.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.  Texas has both transfer on death deeds and “Lady Bird Deeds,” and an attorney can advise you on the differences and the best way to utilize them with your estate plan.  An excellent solution is to use a living trust which allows assets it owns or receives at death to avoid probate.  Having the trust own the property, or possibly using a deed to convey the property to the the trust at death, are excellent solutions.

If you are interested in learning more, please see this article for various ways to own and hold real estate.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-own-your-real-estate/  

In sum, there are many unexpected consequences to transferring your home to your children, so it is important to discuss the best way to convey the home to your loved ones with an attorney.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

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Does Your Estate Plan Include Digital Property?

Many clients own digital property, but need estate plans utilizing new laws to control and protect their digital legacies.

One of the challenges facing estate plans today is a new class of assets, known as digital property or digital assets. When a person dies, what happens to their digital lives? According to the article “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning” from the Cleveland Jewish News, digital assets need to be included in an estate plan, just like any other property.

What is a digital asset? There are many, but the basics include things like social media—Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat—as well as financial accounts, bank and investment accounts, blogs, photo sharing accounts, cloud storage, text messages, emails and more. If it has a username and a password and you access it on a digital device, consider it a digital asset.  I wrote recently on this topic in response to Pennsylvania’s passage of a law addressing digital property, so see there for more details on what these assets are  https://www.galliganmanning.com/new-digital-asset-law-passes-in-pennsylvania/

Business and household files stored on a local computer or in the cloud should also be considered as digital assets. The same goes for any cryptocurrency; Bitcoin is the most well-known type, and there are many others.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) has been adopted by almost all states to provide legal guidance on rights to access digital property for four (4) different types of fiduciaries: executors, trustees, agents under a financial power of attorney and guardians. The law allows people the right to grant not only their digital assets, but the contents of their communications. It establishes a three-tier system for the user, the most important part being if the person expresses permission in an online platform for a specific asset, directly with the custodian of a digital platform, that is the controlling law. If they have not done so, they can provide for permission to be granted in their estate planning documents. They can also allow or forbid people to gain access to their digital assets.  Texas has such a law, and we prepare our estate planning documents to address such property.

If a person does not take either of these steps, the terms of service they agreed to with the platform custodian governs the rights to access or deny access to their digital assets.

It’s important to discuss this new asset class with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan addresses your digital assets. Having a list of digital assets is a first step, but it’s just the start. Leaving the family to plead with a tech giant to gain access to digital accounts is a stressful legacy to leave behind.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Sep. 24, 2020) “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning”

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