5 Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

There’s a lot riding on a successful estate plan. Avoiding these five mistakes will increase the odds that your plan achieves your goals.

An estate plan is unlike any other deal or contract you’ve created for one simple reason: You won’t be around to oversee it once it’s put into effect. For this reason, it’s essential that you craft an estate plan that’s specific enough to ensure your wishes are followed, durable enough to accommodate the inevitable surprises and smart enough to transfer your assets to the next generation in a tax-efficient manner.

“There’s a risk that what one wants to happen during the execution of an estate plan might not happen, and that’s a big concern for people,” says Curtis Fessler, vice president and wealth strategist at Regions. “You have to be very intentional, and also flexible, to make sure that your wealth and values are perpetuated in the way that you want.”

There are many ways in which your efforts could be derailed, ranging from a lack of planning to an estate plan that’s impossible to implement in a way that honors your wishes or is useful to your heirs. Here’s a look at five common — and costly — ways in which an estate plan can go sideways, along with strategies that can put you on a better path.

Mistake #1: Not Having an Estate Plan

The logic here is simple: You can’t have a good estate plan if you don’t have an estate plan at all. Yet the majority of Americans don’t have a will, according to a 2017 caring.com survey. Plus, a functional estate plan requires much more than a simple will; you’ll need separate arrangements to address issues such as power of attorney, advance medical directives and assets that transfer outside of a will, such as a business partnership interest. These arrangements are especially relevant for larger estates, which are subject to high taxes unless appropriate steps are taken.

“If you don’t put a formalized plan in place, then the government’s plan is used instead, and in all likelihood it’s not going to benefit your heirs or those that you love in the manner you would have preferred,” says Fessler. Use this estate planning checklist to get started.

Mistake #2: Forgetting to Update Assets and Beneficiaries

Even after you’ve created a thorough estate plan, resist the temptation to consider your work finished. Life isn’t static, and finances, relationships and circumstances are apt to change. If you fail to consider the extent to which these changes might affect your estate plan, you could be in trouble. A classic example is an estate plan that names a spouse as primary beneficiary — the estate could be thrown into limbo if that spouse has already died by the time the plan is executed.

“You want to do everything you can to avoid the potential costs, time and conflict,” Fessler says. “Make sure your plan remains relevant, and that you’re crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s.”

In fact, Fessler recommends revisiting your plan with your wealth advisor every year or two and making updates as needed. You’ll want to adjust your estate plan to reflect any changes in your family, such as marriages, divorces, births and deaths. You’ll want to update the asset components, as well, taking into account things such as new property or business interests. The goal is to make sure any new changes are reflected in your estate plan and beneficiary lists.

Mistake #3: Not Considering Your Team and Tax Laws

Another aspect of your estate plan that merits occasional review is the list of people who will be entrusted with carrying out your wishes, such as your estate’s executor or those granted medical power of attorney. Make sure these people remain willing, capable and qualified to fulfill their roles. Fessler recommends choosing an executor who is not a relative in order to sidestep potentially negative family dynamics.

Additionally, it’s important to note that tax laws aren’t written in stone, so you should periodically review changes to the tax code with your advisor to evaluate whether they warrant changes in your estate plan.

Mistake #4: Not Anticipating the Estate Tax

People with large estates must mind the estate tax, which claims 40% of the value of estates above $11.4 million, potentially putting a serious dent in the amount you hope to pass on to your heirs.

Thankfully, with a little planning, it is possible to substantially decrease that tax burden. One strategy is to transfer money out of the estate during your lifetime by making gifts to individuals or to trusts. In the latter case, you could establish a trust (or multiple trusts) with a specific purpose that you choose — perhaps to benefit a family member or a philanthropic cause. This gives you control over the ultimate allocation of those funds while reducing the size of the estate for tax purposes.

Under current tax law, gifts of up to $15,000 are exempted from the gift tax (a different tax with rates ranging from 18% to 40%), and you are allowed to make as many exempt gifts as you like. What’s more, if you’re married, each spouse is allowed to make a $15,000 gift to the same person or trust each year without triggering the gift tax. That gives you substantial flexibility in reducing the amount of money that’s subject to the estate tax, as long as you’re proactive.

“Getting some of your assets out of your name and into a trust can be extremely beneficial, so we always discuss whether there are ways to do it without interrupting our clients’ needs, wants or wishes,” Fessler says.

Mistake #5: Making Too Many Assumptions

It’s easy to have blind spots when it comes to your estate. For example, perhaps you assume that all of your children value the family business equally, or that they’ll wish to keep your vacation home for generations. Before you formalize an estate plan that relies upon those assumptions, it’s wise to share your plans with your loved ones and beneficiaries to make sure they’re on the same page.

“When people communicate their vision to their heirs while they’re still here, it reduces a lot of potential conflict in the family,” says Fessler.

Upfront communication can also help to ensure that your assets are distributed where they are most valued. For example, one of Fessler’s clients owned a ranch and assumed his children would love it as he did — but when he asked them about it, he learned they planned to sell it instead. This realization enabled the client to oversee the sale of the ranch himself, ensuring it was sold to a party that would use the ranch as the client wished.

“He got to have that input and, at the end of the day, that was satisfying,” Fessler says.

There’s a lot riding on the successful creation, maintenance and execution of your estate plan. By avoiding some of the most common — and costly — mistakes, you’ll increase the odds that your vision will be carried out after you’re gone.

Contact a Regions Wealth Advisor for assistance to help set your estate plan on the right path — one that honors your wishes and considers possible tax advantages.


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This information is general in nature and is not intended to be legal, tax, or financial advice. Although Regions believes this information to be accurate, it cannot ensure that it will remain up to date. Statements or opinions of individuals referenced herein are their own—not Regions'. Consult an appropriate professional concerning your specific situation and irs.gov for current tax rules. Regions, the Regions logo, and the LifeGreen bike are registered trademarks of Regions Bank. The LifeGreen color is a trademark of Regions Bank.