You wouldn’t expect your family practice physician to perform major surgery, nor would you attempt it yourself. The same is true when it comes to your estate. While the consequences are not as life-threatening, an inadequate estate plan can cause problems you won’t be able to fix.
Mistakes or omissions in your will can cause your heirs to end up contesting its provisions in prolonged, expensive, and public probate court—what you tried to avoid by making a will in the first place. Even if your will is not contested, the court is bound to follow the letter of the law in executing your wishes. If your stated wishes are vague, do not make sense, or the will has not been properly executed, your estate can remain in extended probate, using up your assets in legal fees.
As each person’s situation is unique and laws differ among states, an estate planning attorney guides you through these essential decisions to get your will right the first time.
- Choose the appropriate Executor—Select the person who is the most capable of navigating the financial and legal requirements of probating an estate and who is willing to do it, not necessarily the person you are closest to.
- Coordinate beneficiary designations—A well-crafted will specifies clearly who inherits your assets. It also works as a complement to the beneficiary designations on your insurance policies, retirement plans, and investment accounts, which supersede what’s in your will. If you neglect to name beneficiaries or you forget to update these when your circumstances change, an unintended person can end up with your assets.
- Designate guardians for your minor children—Be sure the named guardians (and backups) are willing to take responsibility and are compatible with your children. It is important to avoid ambiguity and conflict among disagreeing relatives.
- Determine whether you should set up a living trust—If you own real estate in multiple states or own your own business, it may be essential to avoid the additional costs and delays of formal probate proceedings.
- Specify conditions for how your assets may be used—For example, you may require that your children reach a certain age or complete their education before they inherit their share of your assets. Your will or trust should contain specific instructions for making distributions on your children’s behalf.
- Name a person to have financial power of attorney—The person that you name can make financial decisions for you during a period of incapacity. Without this power of attorney, your family may need to petition the court for a conservatorship—a much more expensive and time consuming process.
- Put end-of-life and funeral decisions in the proper context— An estate planning attorney can prepare a separate advance directive for health care and funeral instructions to be given at the appropriate time to the agents you name to act on your behalf. Avoid putting these instructions only in your will. By the time your will is located and reviewed, it is often too late.
- Don’t forget your pets—Provide for your pets through a trusted caretaker. Don’t leave money directly to pets. Your will or a pet trust ensures that a caretaker is named and sufficient funds are provided for your current and future pets’ care.
Brooks Mackintosh, Certified Estate Planner™, is an attorney at Mackintosh Law, LLC, in Decatur, Georgia.