Sunday, November 28, 2021

Estate Planning: Avoiding the “Oops”



Darcie Guerin


“The only source of knowledge is experience.” ~ Albert Einstein


Question: My brother passed away and his will and estate plan had not been updated. This left everything in disarray with the family fighting. What can I do to avoid this type of chaos for my family?

Answer: My condolences on the loss of your brother. Life is unpredictable and each day is a gift. Situations change personally and professionally and estate documents are often overlooked and not updated.

Grief and uncertainty never go well together. Proper planning is a gift you can give to those you care about and love. My career choice was greatly influenced by witnessing confusion and pain in my family due to incomplete financial planning. One of my goals is to help others avoid the “oops.”

Typically, there are eight directive documents to consider when outlining your wishes.

  1. Last Will and Testament to specify and implement your last wishes concerning the distribution of property, naming guardians for minors and identifying who is responsible for managing the estate. Without this document, the state will make these decisions for you. This is so important that before each of our daughters’ weddings, we told them we wouldn’t attend their weddings unless they updated their wills to reflect the new circumstances.
  2. Durable Financial Powers of Attorney gives someone authority to handle your financial and legal decisions if you’re unable to do so yourself.
  3. Durable Medical Power of Attorney names a healthcare proxy or durable power of attorney allowing someone to make medical decisions for you when you aren’t able to do so. Include a HIPAA provision allowing your physician permission to disclose relevant medical information to that individual.
  4. Living Will and Medical Directives specifies what types of treatment you’d like to receive to sustain your life if you’re terminally ill or in a vegetative state or are unable to communicate your wishes for treatment. Approximately 70% of Americans don’t have living wills and written directives.
  5. Revocable or Living Trust can be used to distribute property in a more private and orderly manner than a will. It also helps avoid the probate court process and may offer substantial tax benefits.
  6. Beneficiary Forms prevail over a will on insurance policies, retirement accounts and some other assets. Whomever you’ve named will receive those assets unless you update the form.
  7. Letters of Instruction are a way to share any wishes not covered by a will such as who receives jewelry, furniture or other prized possessions.
  8. List of Contacts to contact in certain circumstances, including family, friends and the professionals who oversee your legal, financial, insurance and health matters.

Examples of “Oops!”

It is said, “He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” Former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger wrote his own will and left his family with more than $450,000 in estate taxes and court fees that could’ve been avoided, thereby proving that this statement is true.

Soprano’s actor James Gandolfini overlooked well-known techniques that could’ve minimized the $30 million owed on his $70 million estate. His heirs included his wife, children (some from a previous relationship) and sisters. By leaving 20% of his assets to his wife, he missed the unlimited marital deduction allowing tax-free transfers between spouses, in most cases. Instead, 80% of the assets were subject to federal estate taxes and New York’s 16% estate tax. While he may not have wanted his current wife to inherit everything, he could’ve used a bypass trust or credit shelter trust with his wife as the lifetime beneficiary and his children as remainder beneficiaries. The assets in the trust would’ve passed free from estate tax upon his death, and free of estate tax when his wife passes. That way he could’ve protected his full estate tax exemption amount from federal estate taxes while protecting the financial security of his entire blended family, while softening the tax blow.

Nontraditional relationships and unmarried couples present additional concerns. Legally, a partner may not have the same rights as a spouse. Beyond writing a will and naming beneficiaries, asset titling is especially important in these situations. Also, don’t presume others will honor your wishes without a written directive. Finally, if you don’t want to make your children millionaires overnight, there are ways to arrange financial resources providing more control over distributions.

Most of us have limited expertise when it comes to complicated tax and estate planning, Avoid the “oops” moments by reviewing your plan at least once a year, updating as necessary. You may not always recognize the importance of legal changes or shifts in family dynamics, but by regularly sharing this information with your advisors, they’re better able to properly plan for you and those you care about most. This could ease the transfer of assets and keep more of your hard-earned wealth within the family, not in the hands of the IRS.

Just like your investment plan, estate plans require ongoing monitoring. Update and edit your plans to reflect changes. Stay focused and plan accordingly.


Changes in tax laws may occur at any time and could have a substantial impact upon each person’s situation. Investors should consult a tax professional for tax advice specific to their situation. The opinions expressed are those of the writer, but not necessarily those of Raymond James and Associates, and subject to change at any time.

“Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER TM, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.”

This article provided by Darcie Guerin, CFP®, Vice President, Investments & Branch Manager of Raymond James & Associates, Inc. Member New York Stock Exchange/SIPC 606 Bald Eagle Dr., Suite 401, Marco Island, FL 34145. She may be reached at 239-389-1041, email Website:



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