What You Shouldn’t Neglect in Your Estate Plan

By Alan D. Feller, Esq.

An estate planning consultation is your opportunity to learn how to protect your assets and make life easier for your loved ones. There is a tendency to focus on documents like “Wills, “Trusts,” and “Power of Attorney,” as universal remedies for planning issues. For many clients, proper estate planning requires more nuanced decision-making and preparation. To give some examples, proper titling of assets and designation of beneficiaries are as important as any document drafting. Neglect it and an estate plan may come undone.  If a bank account is titled only in one person’s name with no beneficiaries, then that asset will pass through the Will. Accounts with a joint account holder or beneficiary will pass directly to that person and will not reach the probate estate through the Will.  Real property that has a single name on the deed without a joint tenancy will likewise pass through the Will. Deeds with joint tenants with rights of survivorship will pass directly to the survivor. Tenants-in-common will still be required to have that asset pass through their Will.

Asset titling overrides Will planning and any inconsistency with those asset provisions in your Will may adversely impact your entire estate plan. It is important that you look at each asset and map out the best ways to utilize, protect, and ultimately distribute the asset as part of your plan. Real estate, qualified retirement accounts, non-qualified accounts, life insurance, and emerging digital assets can be titled accordingly or designated for a beneficiary so that upon your passing they are passed to the person, people or entity of your choice.  

One asset class always seems to be overlooked in an estate plan – motor vehicles. The car, motorcycle, or RV that you currently own will be someone else’s problem after you pass away. That person will have to deal with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the insurance company, potential buyers or family members and even Surrogate’s Court. An organized estate planner may have every asset set to pass outside of probate, but if their car remains titled in just their name and there is no surviving spouse then a small estate proceeding would have to be initiated.  These are the practical, legal implications.  Family dynamics also come into play as the car becomes a bargaining chip.  Overeager family members strategize on whether to sell the car and distribute the proceeds or present the car to the family member who could use the car the most and equalize the estate shares.  The neat and tidy legacy that you crafted over time may devolve into months of squabbling over a 1997 Toyota Camry with the ABBA CD jammed into the stereo. 

For the people in your life who really matter money and property are only one part of the equation.  Your legacy also includes photos, videos, audio recordings and social media. Organizing the visual and audio record of your life will mean the world to the adult children who miss you or the grandchildren who were too young to know you well. 

To avoid neglecting these and other important parts of a sound estate plan please contact the professionals at Sloan and Feller today.

Alan D. Feller, Esq. is managing partner of Sloan & Feller Attorneys at Law, located at 625 Route 6 in Mahopac. He can be reached at alandfeller@sloanandfeller.com.

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