5 Tips To Help You Safely Pass on Your Wealth

Older, mature, senior gay male couple, affectionate and in love, working together on financial documents at their dining room table at home.
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It’s hard to imagine that anyone looks forward to planning how their stuff will be divvied up after they die. But taking the time to ensure a smooth transfer of wealth could be your final act of selflessness — and your posterity will certainly be grateful for your efforts.

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“Having a well-thought-out plan prepared in writing by an estate planning attorney is essential,” said estate planning and wealth transfer attorney Robert E. Kabacy of Kell, Alterman & Runstein, L.L.P. “Without a plan, even though statutes define how an estate is handled, heirs are sometimes left with questions.”

Questions are just the start of what can go wrong if you neglect to make arrangements.

A poorly planned transfer of wealth can saddle your beneficiaries with high fees, unnecessary tax obligations and, worst of all, foster infighting, resentment and prolonged legal battles among your heirs.

The good news is that a little bit of planning can prevent all of those unfortunate outcomes and enshrine your legacy for generations to come.

If Nothing Else, Write a Will

The most basic tool in the wealth-transfer process is a will, which provides a record of your wishes. Without one, the state — and your heirs — are left guessing.

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“A will is used to designate how you want your assets distributed to your surviving loved ones upon your death,” said estate planning attorney Tim Hurban of Hurban Law. “If you die without a will, state law governs how your assets are distributed, which may or may not be in line with your wishes.”

Create a Written Inventory of Your Assets

Every will is only as good as the chronicling of assets that goes with it.

“The single most important thing you can do to insure that your wealth is passed onto your loved ones is to keep an inventory of your assets somewhere,” said Tim Hewson, CEO and co-founder of U.S. Legal Wills. “In your will, you typically refer to ‘my estate,’ and it is the responsibility of your executor to gather up that estate and distribute it to your beneficiaries according to the instructions in the will.”

The problem, according to Hewson, is that executors often have no idea what or where your assets are. That’s why it’s crucial to create a detailed record that includes the information, account numbers, logons and passwords needed to access them.

“A generation ago, our parents may have had two bank accounts and a monthly statement sent to them in the mail,” Hewson said. “Today our assets are distributed all over the place, including in online accounts.”

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Consider a Trust To Add Clarity and Reduce Cost

A will with an inventory of assets is a must-have starting point. But a trust can provide extra protection, reduce confusion and greatly reduce costs.

“Trusts can bypass probate, which can cost thousands of dollars and give opportunities for arguments,” said financial educator, author, speaker and retirement planner Andrew Cremé, CFP, founder of Cremé Wealth Team. “They can be clearly worded to show someone’s true intentions as opposed to just a name and a percentage, and they can involve third parties for oversight to keep heirs from feeling cheated. In short, a trust is a must.”

The stakes of not having a trust come into focus when you consider the cost of the alternative.

“Typically, the largest estate costs are associated with probate court,” said Seth Bier, a Los Angeles estate planning attorney and founder of Bier Law. “In California, attorneys and personal representatives are entitled to a statutorily set percentage of the estate. It is known as the 4-3-2-1 fee, and it requires an estate to pay the attorney a minimum of 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000, 2% of the next $800,000 and 1% of the next $9,000,000.”

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Protect Your Heirs Against 2 Big Traps They Probably Won’t See Coming

According to asset protection attorney Blake Harris, founding principal at Blake Harris Law, lawsuits and divorce are the two most dangerous yet most commonly overlooked liabilities. Everyone, but especially estates of $1 million or more, must take special care to mitigate the risk associated with both.

“The goal of estate planning is to keep money in the family,” Harris said. “To help ensure that your children don’t lose their inheritance due to a lawsuit or divorce, many families will set up an offshore asset protection trust. Not only will these trusts avoid probate and keep the money protected while you are alive, but they will also keep your money safe from creditors and divorcing spouses of your children after you pass away.”

A Difficult Conversation Now Can Prevent Conflict and Resentment in the Future

The most tragic byproduct of poorly planned wealth transfers is the conflict they have a way of creating among living beneficiaries. The surest way to avoid family friction during what should be a time of mourning and healing is to talk about it in advance — it’s an uncomfortable, but necessary conversation.

“Communication is key,” Bier said. “A well-constructed, comprehensive plan can accomplish one’s goals, but if they do not have the often-challenging conversations with their loved ones about their decisions and wishes, they open the door to conflict. They must express their wishes to everyone involved if they want them respected and understood, and these conversations will help avoid conflict and bring a family closer during these difficult emotional times.”

Bier used sentimental memorabilia and family heirlooms as an example. They’re often overlooked but typically cause the most turmoil, even if they have little or no monetary value.

“Fights over family treasures often destroy thoughtful plans and end up in ugly, expensive court battles,” he said.

According to Travis Christiansen, published author and estate planning attorney with Boyack Christiansen Legal Solutions, your verbal discussion with your heirs should be enshrined “in an enforceable legal, written document.”

Christiansen also added, “In addition to clear communication with heirs, it sometimes helps reduce conflict by having a neutral third party administer the estate.”

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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