Estate disputes are never fun. I sat down recently and wrote out nine things that you can do to help make sure that your surviving loved ones don't end up in a battle over your estate. Here they are:
- Current Legal Documents. Make sure you have an up-to-date Will or Trust that thoroughly and accurately express your intentions regarding the settlement of your estate. An ambiguous or poorly drafted legal document can cause heirs to argue about the legal effect of ambiguous language in documents.
- List of Assets. Maintain an accurate list of your assets and debts - and update it annually. Many estate disputes arise because surviving family members are not aware of what the deceased owned. Maintaining an accurate listing of your assets can prevent mistrust between your executor and your heirs regarding the Sworn Detailed Descriptive List that will be filed at the courthouse after your death.
- Communication. Communicate to your heirs about why you are doing what you are doing. While your Will often provides who gets what, your Will is not the place to document "Why" you are doing what you are doing. Communicate to your heirs why you are doing what you are doing. You can speak to them, write them an informal estate planning letter, or even make a video. If all of your heirs understand why you did what you did, it may make them less likely to contest the settlement of your estate.
- Your Executor. Select an appropriate executor or trustee. Some parents feel that they must designate their oldest child as their executor. You should select the most qualified person for the job, whether or not it is your oldest child. The executor's job is to gather all of the assets, determine what, if anything needs to be sold, communicate with the heirs regarding the settlement of your estate, follow the Louisiana Succession Procedural rules, work with our office to make sure all legal matters are handled promptly, and ensure the disposition of your estate in accordance with your wishes as expressed in your last will and testament. Often this job is easy, but when an estate gets contested, it's best to have an executor that can handle the responsibilities that are involved.
- Your lawyer. Form a relationship with a lawyer or law firm that can help you and your surviving loved ones. Estate planning is not a one-shot deal. As laws and family circumstances change, it's important to work with a professional you trust that can help you during your lifetime, and then help your surviving loved ones when you are gone.
- Personal Effects. Provide for the disposition of your personal effects. If you leave things equally to your two children, it will be simple to divide your money and financial assets into two equal parts, but it may not be so simple to divide the family heirlooms. Often these family heirlooms have little fair market value, but have tremendous sentimental value. Clearly communicate to your heirs prior to your death how you want your personal effects handled. It's a shame when family members permanently stop speaking because of an argument over the disposition of personal effects.
- No Contest Clause. Include a "No-Contest Clause" in your Will or Trust. In Louisiana, the validity of these no contest clauses are limited, but there may be no better way to discourage estate disputes than to insert a No Contest clause in your estate planning documents. This important provision discourages estate disputes because it provides that an heir who contests certain matters will not be entitled to receive an inheritance. No Contest Clauses are gaining both acceptance and popularity. In the near future, we will be sending you information about including this important provison in your documents. Stay tuned.
- Your Will. Make the existence of your Will known. Disputes often arise because of the uncertainty that a Will exists, or because they think that "Dad may have updated his Will." You should let your heirs know that you have a Will or Trust, and even let them know if you change it.
- Beneficiary Designations. Update your beneficiary designations. It's great that you have an up to date Will or Trust, but if your life insurance still names your ex-wife as the beneficiary, then you are asking for trouble. Make sure that your life insurance, IRA, and annuity beneficiary designations are consistent with your overall estate plan.
If you do these things, it's much more likely that your estate settlement will run smooth. Can you think of anything else you could do? Feel free to post your comments.