COVID-19 has brought a multitude of changes to our lives. We had to adapt to daily changes like wearing masks and training our quarantine pets to avoid separation anxiety as we begin to work in the office again. COVID-19 has prompted many people to think about what would happen should they pass unexpectedly or are hospitalized and incapacitated. There are more Americans than ever who are wondering what estate planning really is and if creating an estate plan is for them.
In Part I of this two-part series, we will debunk five myths about estate planning. Stay tuned for Part II to learn five more myths and how to avoid them. Remember, one of the reasons why the following myths sound like facts is because you have heard them before (and probably more than once). Try to keep in mind that there is no shame in learning something new.
MYTH 1: “I’m not wealthy enough for an estate plan to matter.”
This myth comes from the focus of so many attorneys and financial advisors on the estate tax, which may not be an issue this year until your estate surpasses just over twelve million dollars – an amount that most of us would characterize as pretty well-off, if not downright rich. Estate planning encapsulates so much more than estate taxes for the ultra-wealthy. Your estate plan provides a roadmap for how you would like your affairs to be handled if you are not available to handle them yourself. It makes sure that your finances are taken care of if you are incapacitated, that decisions about your health care are carried out the way you would like even if you are not able to make them, and that your children and other heirs are taken care of when that time eventually comes.
MYTH 2: “I don’t need to write a will because I can just tell people what I want.”
This myth about “oral” or “verbal” wills is relatively popular. While this might seem like a perfectly reasonable plan right now, there are a couple of big reasons why this myth is false.
First, ask yourself: Do you remember what you wanted to do with a credit card payment back in July 2015? Unless the loved one you tell is one of the few people with eidetic memory, chances are they are not going to remember the details of what you want.
Additionally, an oral will might not be recognized, as is the case in Maryland. Last will and testaments must be in writing, signed by the testator (you) and two disinterested witnesses.
MYTH 3: “My property will be disbursed by the terms of my will.”
Unfortunately, a will is not a catchall as it only distributes the assets left in a decedent’s individual name. Assets that pass by title or by beneficiary designation pass outside of the will by operation of law. Your home, retirement accounts, and life insurance are typically set to pass by title to the joint owner or by beneficiary designation to the named beneficiary. Unless the assets passing by operation of law are coordinated with the will, unintended consequences can result when the property is distributed. Working with DIY software to save money is tempting, but working with an estate planning attorney will ensure that the small details are covered. In many circumstances, titling and beneficiary designations are just as important as the will itself.
MYTH 4: “I’m too young to worry about estate planning.”
Walter Payton, a former running back for the Chicago Bears, said, “Remember, tomorrow is promised to no one.” It is easy to procrastinate creating an estate plan because the results are preventative, as is the case with most safety nets in life. Accidents and illnesses are never planned and can happen at any time. Everybody should have a nominated legal representative to handle financial and medical care decisions in the event of incapacity. In addition, failure to have a valid will or trust designating the representative for an estate will simply result in higher costs to determine the rightful party. It can, and usually does, cause confusion and emotional turmoil about who should receive the estate.
MYTH 5: “I don’t need anything complicated. A simple will is fine.”
Just like you know your car needs oil, your mechanic knows the specific type of oil, the amount, and will also check the tires to make sure you are covered. Just like car oil, most people approach estate planning with the opinion that their needs are quite simple. For instance, many people name children or grandchildren as beneficiaries of their estate, but they also need to consider when the estate should be distributed to the beneficiary (outright, in installments, or specified age), how much should be distributed, and the succession of the beneficiary’s interest, if the beneficiary predeceases. That does not begin to cover other planning for guardianship of minor children, estate taxation, children with special needs, unique asset succession, blended families, etc.
To recap, five things that you must remember to avoid falling victim to the above-mentioned myths are: (1) estate planning is not just for the wealthy, (2) a “verbal” or “oral” will is not valid in Maryland, (3) not all types of assets are covered by a will, (4) adults of all ages should have an estate plan, and (5) there is no “one size fits all” estate plan. Stay tuned for Part II to learn how to protect yourself and your future from five more estate planning myths.