“Handling my father’s estate after his death was a nightmare – I don’t want to leave the same kind of mess for my children.” This is a comment I regularly hear from clients who are meeting with me to create their own estate plan because they want to make it as easy and painless as possible for their family to settle their estates after they pass away. The good news is that there are steps you can take now to ensure the administration of your estate goes smoothly. Here are five situations where difficulties commonly arise during the administration of an estate, and what you can do now so that your children aren’t saying the same thing after your death.
1. Unclear Tangible Personal Property Distribution Wishes
Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, tangible personal property distribution can prolong the administration of an estate. Tangible personal property consists of your personal items – for example, vehicles, clothing, furniture, art work, collectibles, and jewelry. I regularly assist Personal Representatives who encounter conflict among beneficiaries (recipients of estate assets) over the distribution of tangible personal property because of its sentimental value.
One way to reduce potential conflict over the distribution of tangible personal property is to create an itemized list of your important tangible personal property and the beneficiaries to whom you wish those items to be distributed. Another way is to give away the items while you are alive and able to do so.
2. Out-of-Date Estate Plans
Your financial assets, goals and who you designate to manage your estate when you are 35 years old is likely to be different when you are 50 years old and then again when you are 70. If you appointed a family member, friend or professional as your Personal Representative or Trustee who has since died or become incapacitated, it may be difficult to find someone else willing to take on the responsibilities of administering your estate. Additionally, the beneficiaries to whom you wish to distribute your estate after your death may be very different. Perhaps your adult children are now financially well-off and you want only your grandchildren to benefit from your estate assets. Or perhaps you intended a certain asset, such as a house, to be distributed to one of your adult children but you are now estranged from that child and prefer your house to be distributed to another.
A good rule of thumb is that you should review your estate plan to ensure it has the appropriate people designated to administer your estate and receive your estate assets whenever the relationship, health or financial circumstances of you and/or your beneficiaries change, or about every five (5) years.
3. Blended Families with Adult Children
One specific situation that is ripe for conflict is a blended family. Oftentimes the spouses of a second or third marriage bring with them significant assets and adult children who may expect to inherit their parent’s assets soon after their parent’s death. You may unintentionally create strife between your surviving spouse and your adult children by giving your assets to your surviving spouse who uses them to pay for significant health care expenses and leaves nothing for your adult children. Or, your adult children may have poor interpersonal relationships, known or unknown to you, which may have a negative impact on the administration of your estate if an adult child is selected to be Personal Representative or Trustee.
You can reduce the likelihood of conflict among your children and surviving spouse after your death with a prenuptial agreement and estate plan. You can enter into a prenuptial agreement that outlines what happens to your assets at your death as well as divorce. The prenuptial agreement informs and works hand-in-hand with your estate plan documents. Some couples create an estate plan together with the same estate planning attorney and others prefer to retain separate estate planning attorneys.
4. A Voluminous Number of (Forgotten) Assets
Take a moment to think about all of your assets. Do you have any old bank accounts in another state? Or stock certificates or savings bonds tucked away somewhere? What about one or more life insurance policies stashed in a safe deposit box only you can access? How about an ownership interest in real estate in another state with another family member? The more assets you have, the more time-consuming and complicated the administration of your estate will be.
To make things easier on your Personal Representative or Trustee after your death, there are a few things you can do now. Carefully consider if you need to have multiple savings accounts or if you can consolidate them. Periodically check the unclaimed property divisions of states in which you have resided for stock dividends or forgotten bank account balances and file a claim to obtain the property. Create a list of all your assets, update it regularly and let a trusted family member or friend (and your estate planning attorney!) know where to find the information in case something happens to you.
5. Do Nothing
A guaranteed, surefire way to make the administration of your estate difficult is to do absolutely nothing. It may result in forgotten assets appearing later which will require a late and limited probate proceeding. Doing nothing could lead to your estate assets passing to distant relatives, if any, or to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Doing nothing may cause a public administrator to be appointed to administer your estate in a way you did not intend.
Do something. If you are reading this article, you have already taken an important first step to learn more. Now take the next step and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to create or update your estate plan.
A knowledgeable estate planning attorney will guide you through the steps necessary to avoid leaving a mess for your family to deal with after your death. From advising you to designate the appropriate beneficiaries of your retirement accounts to creating an estate plan for your blended family to periodically getting in touch with you to remind you to review and update your estate plan, the attorneys at Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC are here to assist you so that the next generation will visit their attorney and say, “my father had his estate plan in place and made it easy for us to administer – I want to do the same for my children.”
Attorney Abigail V. Poole is an associate attorney with the Dedham firm of Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC which focuses on advising its clients in the areas of estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. She is an active member and Vice President of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney. For more information visit www.ssbllc.com or call 781/461-1020.
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