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Avoid These Estate Planning Mistakes

Jessica Lanning

When it comes to estate planning, Americans make a lot of mistakes. From putting off creation of key documents, forgetting to update their plan after a divorce or remarriage, or neglecting to leave instructions about what to do with certain assets, many people are leaving a legacy of frustration and confusion for their heirs. You can save those you leave behind money and time by avoiding these estate-planning mistakes.

Not Having a Will — Not having a will is probably the biggest estate-planning mistake you can make. It’s also one of the easiest to fix. An attorney can help you draft a simple will that offers instructions on what to do with your assets and who should care for your minor children, among other matters. What happens if you don’t have a will? The courts decide who gets your property and who will assume guardianship of your kids — and it may not be who you would have chosen.

Not Updating Your Estate Plan after Life Changes — Some people think that estate planning is a set-it-and-forget-it issue. But your estate plan needs to evolve with your life. If your family grows, a marriage ends, or you acquire new wealth, you may need to update your will, beneficiary designations, and other documents. One key thing to remember: Check your beneficiary designations on retirement plans and insurance polices periodically. The people listed on these forms will receive those assets, even if your will says otherwise. If you name one child as the beneficiary of your IRA and then neglect to add your second child to the form after her birth, you’ll end up disinheriting one of your children.

Not Working with an Estate-Planning Attorney — Online legal sites and fill-in-the-blank documents have given many people the mistaken idea that estate planning is a do-it-yourself activity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The legal issues surrounding estates can be quite complicated. A skilled attorney (working in partnership with your other advisors) can help you avoid complications and design an estate plan that is complete without unintended consequences.

Not Thinking about Long-Term Care — The average 65-year-old has a 68% chance of becoming disabled and needing long-term care during their lifetime. If you don’t have a plan for how you might pay for that care, you can quickly exhaust your savings, leaving little for your heirs when you do pass away. Smart planning strategies, like purchasing long-term-care insurance or certain types of life insurance, can allow you to protect your wealth for your loved ones while also helping you afford the care you need.

Not Taking Steps to Avoid Family Conflict — Disagreements among family members over how your assets are distributed after your death can lead to permanently damaged relationships and expensive litigation. A detailed, well-thought-out estate plan will help prevent conflict, as your wishes will be clear and there will be less opportunity for legal challenges. Even more important, however, is thinking about your unique family dynamics and taking steps to ensure everyone you love is treated fairly. For example, if you have children from a prior marriage, you may need to take special steps to make sure they aren’t disinherited if you pass away. In some cases, you may be able to head off trouble by sitting down with your loved ones and explaining your plans, so no one is blindsided after your death.

Not Thinking about Digital Assets — These days, many of us live a significant portion of our lives online. As you develop your estate plan, you may want to include instructions for how to handle your digital assets. Putting together a master list of accounts and passwords (particularly for financial accounts) will make things easier on your family as they try to sort out your affairs. But you may also want to include information about your other online assets, like social media accounts, online photo albums, libraries of digital videos and music, and even online businesses, so that your family can gain access to that information.

Fortunately, it is fairly easy to avoid — or correct — any of these estate-planning mistakes. Working with an experienced estate-planning attorney, along with your financial advisor and other professionals, can allow you to create a comprehensive estate plan that protects you and your family.