Review your estate planning documents

EricEnfermero [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
EricEnfermero [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
A recent client of mine had an existing estate plan that he and his wife had prepared decades before.  I have changed the details, but the substance is the same.

He wanted to make changes to his estate plan.  He thought that under his current estate plan, he was giving his baseball memorabilia to his brother and his jewelry to his nephew.  He decided now that instead wanted everything to go to charity.

When I reviewed his estate plan, I found that his estate plan didn’t say any of that!

He had used a mail-order estate planning service, similar to many internet services of today.  There were documents he had sent to the mail-order service, and those documents said what he wanted, but his wishes hadn’t been incorporated into his estate plan.

The lesson here is that even if you already have an estate plan, read through it, and ensure that what you want is going to who you want.  You only have one legacy.  Be sure to secure it properly.

Why does probate cost so much?

Earlier this week I wrote about how probate costs run into the tens of thousands even for homeowners that only have a condo.   The family I met last week was understandably angry at the idea of probate.  Why do you have to pay the government tens of thousands of dollars when you die just to give your house to your children?  The answer is you don’t, but only with proper planning, and a will is usually not enough.

Why do I need to go through probate if I already have a will?

Because your will is just the start of the probate process.

First, the court has to examine your will to ensure that it is a valid will.  Then, once it has determined it is valid, the court must appoint a personal representative to distribute the deceased’s assets.  Someone, usually the executor or an attorney, has to:

  • publish notices and notify creditors
  • deduct costs of administration before distribution
  • transfer assets to beneficiaries
  • handle any pending lawsuits and claims against the estate
  • deal with any contests to the will

These all take time and money.  The estate must cover the cost of Judges, clerks, lawyers, administrators, and all of the time and overhead associated with these people.  These procedures are in place to ensure that the wishes of the deceased are carried out to the fullest.

For the majority of cases where the heirs aren’t arguing about, or even thinking about, who will get what, these costs can seem like an unfair burden.  Still, it is the price we pay to ensure that even the least among us has his or her wishes carried out.

Often, these costs are avoidable through proper estate planning. Rather than pay the tens of thousands later, and go through the lengthy probate process, you can increase the speed of distribution and decrease the costs by making plans well in advance.