Avoiding Estate Planning Mistakes

The success or failure of an estate plan often depends on small details. Amid all the big picture issues (taxes, trusts, gifts, business interests), these matters may seem too small to deserve much time. Don’t have that attitude. It could cost you and your heirs.

Don’t make these very common estate planning mistakes.

* Overlooking non-probate assets. These assets are excluded from the “probate estate” and avoid the probate process, so their disposition is not covered by the will. (They likely are included in the gross estate for tax purposes.) They are covered by law or by contract. These assets include IRAs, employer retirement plans, life insurance, and annuities. Living trusts and all the assets in them also avoid probate.

Retirement plans, annuities, and life insurance have beneficiary designations that must be completed, either as a section of the account application or contract or in a separate document. For each of these non-probate assets, the custodian or account sponsor looks only at the forms in its records. Whoever is listed as beneficiary gets the asset. Often, a beneficiary designation form was completed many years ago, perhaps before the owner was married or had children. In the ensuing years, the owner’s marital or family situation could change. Yet, many people forget about their designation forms and do not update them.

Every estate owner should keep a copy of all beneficiary designation forms and review them every couple of years. More frequent updates are necessary as family situations, goals, and objects of affection change.

A related mistake is not to name contingent beneficiaries. These are needed because a beneficiary might pre-decease the owner or otherwise be unable to inherit. Another reason to have contingent beneficiaries is the primary beneficiaries might realize that due to changed circumstances it would be better for all concerned if someone else inherits the asset. The named beneficiary (or beneficiaries) could file a document known as a disclaimer, refusing the inheritance. The account then would go to the next contingent beneficiary.

* Many people set up living trusts but neglect to fully implement them or update them as needed.

One often overlooked detail with living trusts is that ownership of assets must be transferred to them. Only the assets legally owned by the trust avoid probate and are controlled by the trust’s terms. Too many people do not do the work of transferring the legal title of homes, vehicles, and financial accounts to their trusts, making the trusts useless.

It also is important to check with financial institutions to determine if they need a copy of the trust on file. A number of financial institutions are hesitant to recognize succession clauses in a living trust unless a copy of the trust agreement was filed with them in advance or they have other proof of the initial trustee's intent before transferring power over the accounts.

As with a will, there also might be a need to change trustees and beneficiaries. There should be successor clauses for beneficiaries and trustees that automatically make changes in certain circumstances. The clauses should be carefully written, updated as needed, and the successors made aware of the situation.

* A financial power of attorney is essential to every estate plan. Most estate plans focus on one's demise, but the possibility of disability also must be considered. Someone should have legal authority to manage the finances during a period of disability. If plans haven't been made, loved ones must go to court to have someone appointed. At that point, the owner has no control over the choice.

One reason to get started on the POA is that most financial institutions require that a copy of their own POA form be signed and on record to be effective. They might not accept the form drafted by an attorney or might delay its acceptance for some time. They also might not accept a form that is not filed with them until the principal is disabled.

* There are other details that are part of a complete estate plan. Parents of minor children should designate guardians in case of the demise of both parents. An estate owner also should create a beneficiary book that contains most important financial documents, plus descriptions and locations of other assets and records. There also should be instructions for the estate executor and those who inherit special assets. Funeral, memorial service, and burial instructions can be suggested by the estate owner and should be included in the book. I have discussed all these issues in more detail in regular issues of my newsletter, Retirement Watch.

Over the years estate planning has become synonymous with tax planning. There are other issues that are as least as important as taxes. A goal of estate planning is to manage assets and transfer them as efficiently as possible to the objects of one’s affection. Reducing taxes is part of that process, but there are other aspects that also affect how much of the assets reach loved ones and how efficiently that transfer occurs.


Bob Carlson is editor of the monthly newsletter Retirement Watch and the web site www.RetirementWatch.com. He also is author of the books The New Rules of Retirement and Invest Like a Fox…Not Like a Hedgehog.

Posted 09-17-2009 3:40 PM by Bob Carlson