Vaughn W. Henry
One of the most common problems associated with estate and gift planning is the tendency to use a patchwork quilt approach to the process. The resulting jumble of uncoordinated documents, conflicting directions, confused advisors and angry heirs makes it nearly impossible to meet client expectations. Instead, think about ways the estate plan more closely resembles an architectural blueprint. The design of the estate’s “house” should be based on its needs and use, just like a well thought out residence. Will the legal structure stand up to family turmoil and weather legal storms, can it be expanded to accommodate new needs and a changing economic climate, is it large enough and well built enough to protect the estate? You wouldn’t build a house one room at a time. Nor would you withhold a complicated blueprint from the contractor and all of the plumbers, electricians and roofers or the house wouldn’t be livable. The architect explains the master plan and design philosophy to all who contribute to the project and makes sure plumbers don’t cut electric lines and roofers don’t shingle over the fireplace chimney. Why not build an estate plan the same way? Coordinate the plan and make sure all of the pieces fit together without creating new problems. Advisors believe well designed estate plans should meet certain goals, namely:
· Protect the client from financial insecurity in the event of disability, keep options open and improve the management of the estate in the event of the client’s absence.
· Establish priorities, e.g., should heirs be protected from making inexperienced mistakes, where does a charitable bequest fit into the master plan, how important is control vs. a legitimate tax saving strategy?
· Gather legal, personal, tax and financial documents in an organized fashion and make them easily available when needed. Make sure that the tax, legal and financial advisors all work in a cooperative, goal oriented process. Too often, professional advisors compete for client control and may not acknowledge limitations in their own areas of expertise. It’s unreasonable to expect just one advisor to have all the specialized skills needed to complete an estate plan that zeroes out all tax liabilities, so the use of a professional team has become more accepted.
· Avoid family conflict and future ill will. When heirs don’t understand the plan and feel they’ve been mistreated, many opt for legal challenges that tie the estate up in court for years, wasting assets and frustrating family members.
· Minimize expense, delay and publicity of the estate distribution process. While ease of use and logic are important, the default plan of letting the heirs and IRS fight over the assets doesn’t preserve much of a legacy.
· Stipulate who will operate any business and handle family affairs during a disability or after death. If the estate controls stock in a family business, who votes and controls the stock before it is distributed? Will the family business succession plan work if outsiders take over the business? Will the family business have the liquidity to redeem the stock from the estate?
· Eliminate unnecessary income and estate taxes and provide adequate liquidity to pay final expenses and taxes.
· Consider making charitable bequests from assets that produce income in respect of a decedent (IRD), incorporate that language in the Will and make sure beneficiary designations are current and accurate.
· Pass assets to heirs as planned, under conditions that best that meet family needs and their abilities to effectively manage an inheritance.
Complaints about the costs of creating an estate plan are often overblown. Like contractors dealing with change orders and moving misplaced walls when a builder wants to add a closet or move a bathroom, the costs for planning can be controlled by having a master plan and doing the job in a systematic and orderly way. Each piece builds on another and the plan integrates seamlessly; otherwise keep delaying, starting and stopping and redoing it and the costs invariably go way up.
Besides having an estate plan that’s not integrated, too many clients postpone decision-making. The causes for inaction are numerous, but dealing with complex matters, issues of death or disability, frustration and family harmony are cited by many as reasons. Making the problems worse are conflicting suggestions from friends, family and well-intentioned, but poorly trained advisors. So it’s not hard to understand why most people hope that by doing nothing the problem will solve itself. Benign neglect isn’t a successful planning process; it takes a proactive decision to take control of the process. Don’t assume any plan will be perfect and never again need adjustment. Laws change, family needs change and priorities shift, so work towards solving the big problems now and then focus on the little ones later. As Karin Ireland noted — Waiting until everything is perfect before making a move is like waiting to start a trip until all the traffic lights are green.