“No estate plan is bulletproof,” says Michael Hackard, founder of the Mather- based firm Hackard Law, which specializes in estate, trust and probate litigation. In more than 40 years of practice, he’s seen the gamut of gaps in plans: Some are big enough for self-servers to worm through, while others let assets bleed out. Five of the most common mistakes are easy to avoid with the right information and support, as well as a little creativity.
Anyone looking to plan an estate should begin by assembling a supporting cast of professionals, including an elder-law attorney, a financial adviser and a certified public accountant.
Misunderstanding Estate Laws and Terminology
Like most legal issues, estate planning is fraught with jargon and arcana. It can be enough to turn some off of planning their estates altogether — especially those who assume they have too little property to worry about. Without planning, even estates under $150,000 (which can pass without probate, according to California’s Affidavit for Collection of Personal Property) may cause headaches for beneficiaries. Before putting together a will or a trust, know the difference between the two and understand the pros and cons of passing through probate. An attorney specializing in elder law and estate planning should be able to assist in this. Find one through the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys at www.naela.org.
Getting the Wrong Advice
Ed Outland, CEO of the financial services firm Family Heritage Group, suggests that anyone looking to plan an estate should begin by assembling a supporting cast of professionals, including an elder law attorney, a financial adviser and a certified pub- lic accountant “who knows how to count those beans,” he says. When looking for advice, beware of “trust mills” — predatory practices that plug clients’ names into boilerplate estate plans, Mad Libs style. The real goal is to scam the client into buying insurance or annuity products. Hackard says finding the right attorneys and advisers is “much like finding a physician”: Ask questions and do research.
Designating Yourself as a Sole Trustee
One might assume that the most trust- worthy trustee would be the testator. Not so, says Hackard, who has seen estate plans fall apart when dementia and Alzheimer’s disease leave an elder susceptible to outside influences. California law requires a certificate of independent review for certain changes to trusts, such as adding a nurse or an attorney as a beneficiary, but it leaves the door open for family members who may want to take advantage of the situation. Hackard suggests designating a co-trustee who must sign off on any changes — like a trusted child, financial adviser, CPA or licensed professional trustee.
Losing Track of Assets
Not all assets may be accounted for in a will or trust. Some assets, like 401(k) plans, individual retirement accounts and life insurance plans have designated beneficiaries in their own associated contracts. Stocks and securities accounts, meanwhile, may pass differently than other assets depend- ing on the names on the account. “Some- times people forget to change things,” says Hackard. “I’ve had several cases where a divorced spouse is still on a life insurance policy.” When updating a will or trust, be sure to also update the beneficiaries of these outside assets.
Committing to an Option Before Considering Others
When it comes to estate planning, says Outland, “We have a tendency to try to fall into line with what we think we should be doing.” But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to estates. For entitlement or tax reasons, for example, it may make sense to transfer assets to beneficiaries while the testator is still living. That might also be a terrible idea, depending on the beneficiaries’ spending habits. Despite the cold numbers and legalese, estate planning is a personal process, dependent on each family’s assets, needs and values. “The legal and the emotional parts are always going to go together,” Hackard says. “And that’s normal.”