How to Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

by | Apr 30, 2012 | Estate Planning, Healthy Money Relationships, Weekly Column

Since the death of singer Whitney Houston, I’ve seen several articles from attorneys and financial advisors about the errors in her estate planning. They have summarized three areas where it was badly flawed: 1. Lack of privacy. Ms. Houston had a simple will that was subject to public probate, rather than a living trust that would have kept her affairs private. Anyone with thumbs and access to the Internet can see a copy of her will. 2. Lack of protection from claims, con artists, and circumstances. The estate, estimated to be worth over 20 million dollars, was left to Ms. Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown. A vulnerable young woman just barely of legal age will receive three huge payouts over the next decade and become a multi-millionaire by the time she’s 30. A trust could have given her some limits and structure, as well as providing for advisors to help her learn how to manage her wealth and protect herself from predators. 3. Lack of tax planning. The federal estate tax of 35% on anything over $5,120,000 will apply to the estate, so Uncle Sam will take around a third of it off the top. Unfortunately, this lack of skilled estate planning isn’t all that rare among wealthy people. Here are a few of the money beliefs that may be behind inadequate estate planning: “Complicated estate planning is for rich people, and I’m not rich.” This may especially apply to owners of small businesses who don’t have a particularly high income or lifestyle but whose land or businesses may be worth several million dollars. Yet good estate planning advice is especially important for them, because their heirs aren’t necessarily aware of or prepared for a substantial inheritance. “The financial advice that was good enough when I was just starting out is good enough now that I’m successful.” A tax preparer, accountant, or financial advisor who is highly competent with small individual or business matters may not have the knowledge necessary for more complex estate planning. Seeking out different financial advisors as your income and net worth grow is no different from consulting a specialist rather than a general practitioner if you have specific medical needs. “When you can afford the best, you’ll get the best.” Trying to save money by hiring bargain-basement financial advisors is almost always a mistake. It can also be a mistake to assume that someone who charges top-tier fees will always have top-tier skills and integrity. Even if a financial planner or other professional has a reputation as an advisor to the wealthy, it’s still essential to verify that the person or firm is right for you. Ask for references and be willing to ask hard questions about compensation, investment philosophy, and services. Make sure you are a client, not a customer. Work only with financial advisors who, like accountants or attorneys, have a fiduciary duty to put your interests first. “I know how to make money, so of course I know how to manage money.” Many highly educated and skilled professionals are high earners but don’t necessarily have the knowledge to manage their earnings well. In order to know whether the advisors you hire are competent, it’s important to learn the basics of investing and money management. Look for advisors who don’t set themselves up as “gurus” but are willing to teach and to work in partnership with you. When it comes to financial advice, it isn’t enough to find someone who will “make you feel like a million dollar bill.” It’s more important to find advisors who will help you take good care of all your dollars.

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