When can an estate plan be simple?

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My father liked to say that he had a simple Will:

“I have little, I owe much and the rest I spent.”

In the end it was a pretty accurate prediction that worked for him, although he did allow me to prepare reciprocal Wills and powers of attorney for him and my mother.

With internet availability of Will and trust forms, there is a general impression that a “do-it- yourself” estate plan is the cost-effective solution to the need for an estate plan. Similarly, many prospective clients expect that the legal clinic pricing for Wills and trusts is the limit on what they should have to pay for an estate plan prepared by any attorney. There also seems to be a general impression that their plan will be really simple. 

While that may be true for many individuals, during most initial client meetings it becomes apparent that most estate plans cannot be as simple as expected and still accomplish the clients’ objectives. A few areas of complexity that often arise include:

  1. Difficult family relationships
  2. Financially irresponsible/immature beneficiaries
  3. Assets that cannot be easily divided, e.g. family heirlooms, vacation real estate, collectibles, etc., may create issues among the beneficiaries
  4. Assets that present other types of problems – difficult to sell or manage
  5. Uncertainty as to who should serve as executor or trustee
  6. The need for lifetime management of affairs during disability

Many of these may be addressed by a simple Will, but most will require special provisions, additional documents, and the experience of an attorney who is equipped to offer insight and alternatives for creating and implementing your plan.

How do you define a bad estate plan?

In a way, any estate plan that doesn’t accomplish your objectives is a bad plan. If you do nothing, most states have laws that govern how and to whom your estate will be distributed, which won’t likely match your objectives. Music icon Prince recently died without a Will and, if you have paid much attention to the internet postings since his death, you will appreciate that his heirs (whoever they may be) will face long litigation and delays, with it all played-out in public. For a person of his wealth, it is shocking that he neglected to have an estate plan that would accomplish his objectives.

At the same time no plan is perfect because circumstances change – the nature and extent of your estate, job or career changes, tax law changes, births, deaths, marriages, divorces etc., often happen with consequences that could not have been predicted, as well as a change in the availability or reliability of the fiduciaries (executor, guardian, trustee, agent under a power of attorney). Any of these changes can result in your estate plan being something other than you intended. You will likely have assets that require a beneficiary designation – these should be coordinated with your estate planning documents.

We recommend that you review your plan at least every five years, or following any of the changes or events mentioned above. Periodic reviews will allow you to update your plan in order to ensure that the right beneficiaries receive the desired inheritance in a form that will maximize the benefits you intend to provide – nearly a perfect estate plan.

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