Preface: Featuring Nevin Beiler, Esquire this week, a a PA-licensed attorney who practices primarily in the areas of estate planning, business law, and nonprofit law. In a three segment series, you have the opportunity to learn how competent legal counsel can lead to more rewarding decision making, e.g. applied to estate planning counsel.
Seven Common Mistakes in Estate Planning—And How You Can Avoid Them (Segment I)
By Nevin Beiler, Esquire
“You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.” – Samuel Levenson.
We all appreciate when we can learn from the mistakes of others, because avoiding those same mistakes can save us a great deal of money and heartache. It is no different when it comes to estate planning. It pays to learn from those who have gone before us.
To help you get started on your estate planning journey, or to assist with your current plans, let’s look at some of the common mistakes people make when it comes to estate planning, and what you can do to avoid these mistakes.
#1. Failing to Plan
Doing nothing is probably the most common mistake people make when it comes to estate planning. Everyone should have a plan, not just the old or wealthy. Doing nothing is easy and cheap—until you are gone and your heirs are left with a mess to sort out. If a person dies without a will, the law provides a court-supervised process to distribute assets, and a judge appoints someone to administer the estate and someone to be a guardian for minor children, but what a judge chooses is not always what the deceased would have chosen.
Consider the following scenario: A middle-aged man dies and leaves a wife and three young children. He did not have a will, but he always told his wife that if he died she could sell his business and live off of the proceeds of the sale until she finds a way to make a living. The business eventually sells for a liquidation price of $400,000, but the widow discovers that under the laws of Pennsylvania she is entitled to only $215,000. The children equally split the remaining $185,000, and a guardianship is established to manage the children’s inheritance until they turn 18. Also, the husband had purchased the family home before they were married, and the wife’s name had never been added to the deed. This means that the children are also entitled to own a portion of the home, rather than the widow owning it outright. A simple estate plan can avoid this complicated result, and ensure that the husband’s wishes are carried out.
Even if a married couple owns all assets jointly, and therefore the surviving spouse can receive everything, some simple planning is still important. In the event both parents pass away, a plan can ensure their children will be cared for by trusted caregivers, not whomever a judge decides to appoint as guardian. Also, a plan can reduce the chance of siblings, children, or in-laws fighting in court about what should happen to children or assets. Furthermore, having a plan in place usually means that administering an estate after death requires less work and is less expensive.
Discussing your goals with a trusted estate planning attorney can help you think through the unique challenges of your situation and adopt a plan that will be a blessing both to your heirs and to your peace of mind. And then, don’t forget to periodically review and update your plan as necessary. Remember, failing to plan is planning to fail.
#2. Not Communicating About Plans While Living
Adopting an estate plan early in life, and then updating that plan throughout life as circumstances change, is a great first step. But don’t forget to communicate your plan to your heirs and key people like executors and guardians. This can avoid surprises and hurt feelings later on.
Prior to naming someone to serve as guardian of your minor children, it is important to discuss this appointment with them to ensure they are able and willing to serve. Also, talk to your executors to ensure they feel comfortable in that role, and that they know where to get help if they need it. If the people you name are not able or willing to serve, then naming them in your will is useless.
Also, consider having a family meeting with all your heirs to discuss your plans for your estate. If you are not comfortable sharing all the details, you do not need to, but be as open and detailed as you can. Discussing your plans with your heirs can avoid unpleasant surprises and conflict down the road. It can help reduce misunderstandings that can arise after you are gone, and might raise some issues that you missed in your plans that can then be addressed before you pass away.
Many people are raised in a setting where estate plans, and money matters in general, are not often discussed and perhaps take on an air of secrecy. However, this can be harmful to relationships if it results in disagreements or unmet expectations later on. Make the effort to communicate.
Nevin Beiler is a PA-licensed attorney who practices primarily in the areas of estate planning, business law, and nonprofit law. Nevin is part of the conservative Anabaptist community and is passionate about practicing law in a way that builds the Kingdom of God and is consistent with the Anabaptist faith. He lives and works in Lancaster County, PA, and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 717-287-1688.