Estate Planning 101: 5 Tips to Avoid Mistakes
As I work with small business owners and investors throughout the year, I want them to see the big picture when it comes to Estate Planning. Many misunderstand what the Estate Plan is all about and think it’s simply an ‘asset protection’ strategy…that couldn’t be further from the truth.
An Estate Plan is about passing on your hard earned wealth to your loved ones, or a project/institution you love. What a tragedy for a small business owner or investor to spend decades toiling to build wealth, only to have it crumble at the very end of their life because they don’t have an estate plan. YOUR wealth should go to what or who you love, NOT lawyers or to ungrateful and litigious family members fighting over who gets what.
Having said that, estate planning is not just for entrepreneurs or investors – anyone who has assets and/or a family should have an estate plan. So here are 5 tips for avoiding mistakes when setting up an estate plan:
1. Putting It Off / Procrastination. Nobody likes thinking about dying. But here’s a motivating factor to not put off your estate plan. Imagine how you would feel if upon your death your assets went to your worst enemy (or at least someone you don’t like). Although that’s an extreme thought, the reality is that if you don’t have an estate plan, you lose that control, that ability to decide who gets your assets upon your death. So before you put off doing an estate plan, imagine your ex-spouse getting everything you own, and hopefully that is all the motivation you need to get your estate plan done. The first step is to fill out an estate planning questionnaire. Our questionnaire has all the basic questions you should be asking yourself when setting up an estate plan. Then I would review those answers and we would schedule a consult to make sure everything is in order.
2. Making Sure the Estate Plan Fits You / Your Situation. It doesn’t make sense to have an elaborate expensive estate plan if that’s not necessary. It also doesn’t make for a successful business owner or investor to pay $99 for a boilerplate estate plan off the internet. The key is making sure your estate plan is a good fit for your You don’t want it bigger and more expensive than it needs to be, but you also want to make sure it is comprehensive and custom-fitting to your circumstances. Our office can assist with making sure it’s a good fit for your situation.
3. Not Knowing the Difference Between Creating a Trust and Funding a Trust. One of the biggest tragedies is when someone finally gets an estate plan with a revocable living trust but they fail to FUND the trust i.e. put assets into the trust. Certainly the trust can’t own assets until it is created, but simply creating the trust without funding it is insufficient. Creating your revocable living trust is a matter of getting the documents drafted and properly executed/signed. Funding your trust is a matter of actually putting your assets into the trust. The manner in which this is accomplished depends on the asset. Some assets require having ownership re-titled into the name of the trust. Other assets simply require having the trust listed as the beneficiary. But if you create the trust but don’t fund it, you’re missing arguably the most important step in the process of estate planning. If you created a trust but are unsure if it’s been funded appropriately, our office can assist with this.
Here is a video by our senior partner here at KKOS lawyers, Mark J Kohler, explaining 4 reasons why you might need a trust. Understanding the role and purpose of a trust can help you fund it and maintain it properly.
4. Understanding that Estate Planning is Not Just About Death. If death isn’t reason enough to have an estate plan, what about incapacity? Imagine the impact on your business and your life if you lost your mental capacity either because of a coma or something less dramatic. You would no longer be able to make important decisions about your business and your life. A good estate plan will include documents that address this. So make sure your estate plan has the appropriate documents for death AND disability/incapacity.
5. Knowing When to Make Changes / Take Ownership of Your Estate Plan. Your estate plan is meant to be a living, breathing thing that should probably be changed as your life circumstances change. If you plan to setup an estate plan and hope to leave it alone until you die, there’s a good chance either the applicable law will have drastically changed or your intent will be completely different than it was when you first set it up. So if you put your best friend as a beneficiary of your trust and then you guys become worst enemies, it’s a good idea to update to your trust. If your trust was written when your kids were little and they’re now adults, it’s probably a good idea to update your trust. If you put your brother as the successor trustee of your trust with no backup and he died 5 years ago, you need to update your trust. Basically, if the nature of your relationship with anyone you’ve listed in your estate plan has materially changed, it’s time to update your trust. Now if someone’s address changes or something minor, you don’t necessarily need an overhaul of your estate plan. The other part of this tip is making sure you take ownership of your estate plan. Hopefully you get an attorney to draft it but even so, you should know the basics of your estate plan such as who the trustee(s) is/are and who are the beneficiaries, so that as your life changes and your relationship with these people change, you know if a change needs to be made to your estate plan. For example, I have talked to many people who obtained an estate plan previously and they don’t know who the beneficiaries are or who the trustee(s) is/are or what the trust owns. While you don’t need to know the legal jargon you should know these basics about your estate plan.
Hopefully these tips will get you thinking about setting up your estate plan or updating it if you already have one and your situation has changed from when you set it up originally. Our estate plans come include a one hour consultation so you’re getting sound legal advice tailored to your situation, and not just boilerplate paperwork. Please contact our office at 888-801-0010 to book a consultation with an attorney to start the process. Any retainer will be applied to the cost of setting up the entire estate plan.