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3 Simple Mistakes That Can Derail Your Estate Plan

If you’re tempted to use a DIY estate planning service or have already created a plan you aren’t 100% confident in, be sure to read how these three simple mistakes can derail your estate plan and leave your family with an expensive mess.

We regularly meet with clients who ask us to review an estate plan that they created online or with an attorney who isn’t experienced with estate planning. You see, these clients usually think they found a faster and cheaper solution to estate planning, but once the plan is signed and done, they’re often left wondering whether this “cheap” plan will actually accomplish their goals, or if it will leave their family with a big mess instead. And what I see time and again when I review these estate plans are poorly designed plans with simple but devastating mistakes. What’s more, these clients wouldn’t even realize their plan had these mistakes if they hadn’t met with us!

While it might seem simple enough to put together a trust online or have your tax attorney prepare your will, it can be very difficult to create an estate plan that works without the proper training and experience. What might seem like minor details to the inexperienced eye can often have major effects on your plan’s final outcome.

More often than not, clients who meet with us to review a DIY plan find out that instead of saving money on their estate plan, they’ve actually cost themselves much more by buying a plan that has mistakes. And if these mistakes aren’t caught by you while you’re alive and well, your loved ones will be the ones paying the price to resolve them after you’re gone.

Here are the three biggest mistakes I see when reviewing DIY and low-cost estate plans:

1. Leaving Assets Outright to Loved Ones

One of the simplest mistakes you can make in estate planning is distributing your assets directly to your beneficiaries upon your death. This is a bad idea for several reasons:

  • The assets have no protection from your beneficiaries’ creditors once they leave your estate

  • The money can be squandered and used however the beneficiary wants

  • If the beneficiary is a minor, a court will decide who manages the assets and how they’ll be used

Instead of gifting your assets directly to your beneficiaries, distribute your assets into a trust for the beneficiaries' benefit. When creating a trust, you can choose who will manage your assets for your beneficiaries while also sheltering those assets from your beneficiaries’ creditors or their own poor money-management skills.

Setting up a trust to hold your assets is especially important if you have minor children. Minors cannot own money on their own, which means they can’t receive any assets from you directly on your death. Instead, a court will need to appoint a trustee or conservator to manage the assets you leave for your children. There’s a high chance that the person the court appoints will not be the person you would have chosen yourself. And if the court appoints a professional trustee, your assets will be reduced by expensive trust administration fees.

A court-appointed trustee will distribute the assets to your children outright when they reach the age of 18, but this only puts the assets at risk. Few young adults have the maturity or knowledge to manage a large sum of money responsibly so that it can grow and support them over time. Even if your adult child is responsible or has guidance from someone you trust, those assets are still susceptible to any lawsuits, divorces, and unforeseen financial troubles your child may experience in the future.

Instead of leaving assets outright to a minor or young adult, leaving your assets in a trust, established for the child’s benefit, allows you to choose the person who will manage the assets you leave for them, helps the assets grow through careful financial management, and protects the assets from your child’s lack of experience and future risk.

2. Not Creating a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust

Creating a trust to hold your assets can provide years of asset protection for your loved ones, but that protection only exists so long as the assets are held in the name of the trust. The second big mistake I see are trusts that direct the assets to be taken out of the trust’s protection and given to your child or beneficiary at a specific age. You might not see the problem with this scenario at first, but even if your child or beneficiary is mature enough to manage a sum of money, doing this still leaves those assets susceptible to future legal and financial risks.

Instead, everyone should consider creating a Lifetime Asset Protection Trust to hold their beneficiaries’ assets indefinitely. This gives the assets lifelong protection while still providing financial support to your beneficiaries.