Estate planning isn’t a jolly or simple task, but it is a necessary one to secure yourself and prized possessions at the end of your life. Mistakes can cost your heirs and executors time, money, and emotion. Complete, correct planning can help ease everyone through this difficult experience. Think about these mistakes and work with your estate attorney to avoid them.
One Overwhelming Error
The biggest mistake is simply not doing it, or putting it off, maybe because “estate planning” seems to imply that you need to have a fortune or Downton Abbey to bequeath, or there is nothing to plan for. On the contrary, it’s a wise idea for everyone, no matter the amount of assets or property.
Because estate planning ensures a number of very important things: that, if you become incapacitated, your healthcare directives are known; that your last wishes for yourself, living or deceased, will be respected; that those you want to inherit your property will do so; that pets will be cared for; and that a trusted executor of your choice will be responsible for carrying out your wishes.
Without documents naming your executor(s), the probate court will appoint one to your estate, usually your nearest relation. You may already know that this appointment would be too heavy a burden for that person, or you may know you don’t want your nearest relation to have that authority. To avoid this unfortunate situation, do not leave your plan unmade. An attorney who specializes in estate planning will guide you through the steps to take.
Don’t Underestimate Probate
The American Bar Association defines probate as “the court-supervised legal procedure that determines the validity of your will. All property, debts, and claims of the estate are inventoried and appraised. All valid claims of the estate are collected, and the remainder is distributed to beneficiaries according to the will.” If that sounds long and complicated, it can be. Depending on the size of the estate, the planning work you do, and the court’s schedule, the process can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.
Avoid the mistake of making probate harder on your executor and heirs than it needs to be. In planning well, collect documentation of your assets such as deeds, location of safety deposit box, records of bank accounts, etc. Leave detailed instructions about how to distribute your property, including to known creditors, family, friends, or charities. Since probate involves taking an inventory, notifying creditors, and distributing inheritance, your planning can make the steps of probate easier and faster for the executor.
Don’t Make the House Sale Harder
Another mistake to avoid is failing to address probate inheritance of actual property, such as a house, in your estate plan. If there’s a house to be sold by the executor, that’s another multi-step process among their responsibilities. But you can streamline the process through your estate planning with clear information. For example, if there are tenants involved, your instructions regarding them will avoid later conflict.
You can also help the sale by collecting all necessary house documents and records that a seller could require, and a contact list of any trustworthy vendors your executor may need for repairs and maintenance. Encourage the executor to find a probate real estate agent; for another “Don’t Underestimate Probate” reminder, there are special rules and paperwork that apply to sales of probate property. They have to be done right, or done all over again, for the house to sell and the estate to close. Delays from such mistakes could lose your house a ready buyer.
Don’t Avoid Expert Advice
The best way to get and keep your estate ducks in a row is to work with an experienced attorney who can advise you on the best planning for your needs and wishes.