The Biggest Mistakes People Make With Their Wills | Kanebridge News
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The Biggest Mistakes People Make With Their Wills

The obvious one isn’t doing a will at all. But that is just one of many errors people make—often with potentially serious consequences.

Fri, Feb 17, 2023 8:49amGrey Clock 5 min

Everybody knows they should have a will, and not having one can leave heirs with a big mess. But just having a will isn’t enough. Big mistakes are common—from leaving decisions to the last minute and failing to update documents to mismatching beneficiary designations.

What follows are some of the biggest mistakes people make when doing their wills, according to attorneys who have seen these missteps far too often.


Of course, thinking about death is uncomfortable, and planning for it can be costly. But to have a say in the distribution of your assets after you die—what each heir will receive, what charities to support and other matters—timely planning is critical. Yet many people either don’t create the proper documents, or they attempt to cobble something together on their deathbed. These last-minute efforts can lead to a host of problems for the simple reason that decisions made in haste leave less time to think through the multiple what-ifs.

Last-minute preparation also raises the likelihood that a disgruntled heir could claim the will was made under duress or in a diminished capacity, says Rebecca Hedaya-Heller, founding partner of Heller & Associates, a law firm in North Woodmere, N.Y.

Another reason not to procrastinate: A document known as a revocable trust, or living trust, can make it possible to distribute assets while you are still living and can be useful if you become incapacitated. A living trust can be especially important in states such as New York, California and Florida that have more restrictive probate laws. Living trusts have other uses as well, such as keeping things out of the public record since trusts are private documents, Ms. Hedaya-Heller says. This means that a family’s affairs can be kept private, including the value of the estate and to whom assets have been given.

Dropping large inheritances in heirs’ laps

When leaving significant money to heirs, people sometimes choose to bequeath it outright, all at once. This can be a mistake, says David Handler, a partner in the trusts and estates practice group at Kirkland & Ellis LLP. Children in their early 20s or 30s, or even later in life, may not be able to handle such windfalls. Giving them unfettered access to it, he says, can be imprudent.

A better option, Mr. Handler says, is to leave the assets to a trust to manage the assets after death. Such trusts also can offer tax and asset-protection advantages to the beneficiaries, he says. For example, they can be designed so that a divorcing spouse or creditor from a lawsuit cannot reach the trust assets. A trust also can be structured to avoid additional estate tax when the assets pass to siblings or children upon the beneficiary’s death, regardless of the trust’s value or the beneficiary’s net worth.

Forgetting digital assets

As more people invest in cryptocurrency and NFTs, it becomes critical to ensure someone will have the ability to navigate their digital wallets once they pass away, says Jonathan Forster, partner at Weinstock Manion in Los Angeles. “If you have a digital wallet and no one has that information, the crypto is lost,” he says.

Be sure to keep good records of your cryptocurrency and leave heirs instructions about how to access this information. Don’t store private keys—strings of letters and numbers that allow access to digital assets—on an old, offline computer, for instance, because the hardware could be inadvertently thrown out and the assets lost. Instead, consider using a special device known as a hardware wallet to manage your crypto assets, and make sure heirs know how to find and access the device.

Additionally, people should not include their passwords or private keys in a will itself, which becomes public through the probate process.

Not making regular updates

Write it and forget it is a common theme for wills. But the documents should be updated every five to 10 years because intentions and circumstances can change over time. “Life happens,” says J. Whitfield Wilks, director at Novare Capital Management, an investment management firm in Charlotte, N.C.

People who have made out their wills years earlier can change their minds about who should get what and which charities to support. Appropriate guardians for children, too, can change over time, which is why periodic reviews are critical. For instance, says Mr. Wilks, 20 years after a will is drawn up, a sibling who was named as executor could be dead or estranged, in a nursing home or otherwise incapacitated.

Mismatching beneficiaries

Even if they have an updated will or living trust, many people forget to update their beneficiary designations on other things—such as pension accounts, individual retirement accounts and other investments, and life-insurance policies. Because a beneficiary designation generally supersedes the terms of a will, there can be unintended consequences. These can include leaving substantial sums of money to an ex-spouse or failing to leave specific assets to a child or grandchild since an original designation may have been made before they were born. “It’s an ongoing process to make sure these things match and your wishes will be implemented,” Mr. Wilks says.

Not allowing for flexibility

Sometimes wills or living trusts are worded in ways that cause unintended consequences, such as leaving more or less money than desired to an individual or charity.

For example, Mr. Handler says, imagine a man with an estate worth $10 million whose will says to leave $1 million to charity and the rest to his children. Under that scenario, the children would get $9 million. But if the estate’s value drops and is now worth only $4 million, the charity would still receive $1 million and the children only $3 million.

People also have to be careful when leaving a particular stock or bank account to a particular child, he says. When the person dies, if the asset is no longer owned or has dropped precipitously in value, that child could unintentionally be left with nothing or significantly less than their siblings, he says.

Not heading off conflicts

Conflicts between heirs tend to happen more often when they are surprised by the contents of wills or trusts, says Mr. Forster, which is why the Los Angeles attorney says he recommends clients be upfront with beneficiaries about their intentions. While these conversations can be hard, having them in advance mitigates the risk of resentment, and possibly litigation, among heirs after a loved one dies.

Mr. Forster offers the example of a mother who was planning to leave a significantly larger share of her estate to her daughter, a teacher. This move would have left her son, a doctor, mostly disinherited. Although the mother loved both her children and was on good terms with both, her estate-planning decisions were based on their respective financials.

Acting on Mr. Forster’s advice, she spoke to the son before drafting the estate plan and was surprised to hear he felt snubbed and unloved, which wasn’t her intent. As a result, she amended her plans, still leaving the daughter more money than the son, but to a lesser extent.

Because the family discussed the situation, the son won’t “have to spend the rest of his life wondering if he did something wrong or whether his mom didn’t love him as much,” Mr. Forster says. “At least they got to have that conversation.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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Why It’s Now Easier to Underestimate Your Expenses and Overspend

Many people are spending more than they think as inflation stays elevated

Tue, Mar 28, 2023 3 min

Many people have a gap between what they think they spend and what they actually spend. This gap has widened recently as the financial and psychological effects of higher prices further strain people’s budgets.

Elevated inflation has rippled through American’s wallets for more than a year now. Some have cut back, while others have increased their spending to keep up. Credit-card balances were staying relatively flat for a while, but have jumped higher recently.

In the fourth quarter of 2022, the average household’s credit-card balance was $9,990, up 9% from in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to WalletHub, a consumer-finance website. Meanwhile, the average credit-card interest rate rose to a record high of about 20% last week, according to Bankrate.

Financial advisers say the larger amount of credit-card debt while rates are higher is one indication that some Americans are spending more than they think they are. This type of spending can reduce people’s ability to pay for important items down the road, such as college for a child or even fund their own retirement. More immediately, it will put people in costlier debt.

“If people spend too much on credit, they could end up trapped in a cycle of debt,” said Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma.

Spending less isn’t always possible when everything from groceries to travel is generally more expensive. Still, people can find ways to cut back if they understand more about why they are overspending and take a closer look at their finances.

Inflation on top of inflation

The power of compounding is a boon to investors, but not to shoppers.

Money grows much faster than most people expect because interest is earned on interest, said Michael Liersch, head of Wells Fargo & Co.’s advice and planning centre. A similar concept applies to inflation: Prices rise, and if inflation remains high, prices continue to grow on top of already-inflated prices, leaving people off guard.

“People get constantly surprised that their money isn’t going as far as they thought it would,” he said.

The cost of eating out and going for drinks continues to take Dina Lyon aback. Even though the 36-year-old married mother of one is dining out and ordering in far less than she did a year ago, some prices still give her sticker shock.

“The difference between cooking at home—about $10 for nice pasta and quick sauce from canned tomatoes—versus Italian takeout of $50 is astronomical,” said Ms. Lyon, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Outdated budgets

People tend to underestimate their future spending in large part because they base their predictions on typical expenses that come to mind easily, said Abigail Sussman, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

She and other researchers found that when people are coming up with predictions, they tend to think about what they usually spend money on—such as groceries, rent and gas—and base their predictions primarily on these expenses. They are less likely to consider atypical expenses, such as car repairs or birthday presents, the researchers found.

This pattern is particularly problematic when inflation is high, said Prof. Sussman. When the price of the same basket of items rises, people might not account for these price increases in their future budgets, she said.

Further, times of stress cause people to be less intentional about tracking their money, said Mr. Liersch. They might also spend more than they know they can afford to soothe feelings including anxiety and depression.

According to a recent survey by Credit Karma, 39% of Americans identify as emotional spenders (defined by the study as someone who spends money to cope with emotional highs and lows.)

Take control

You have a better chance of staying under budget if you become more aware of your spending instead of sticking your head in the sand, financial advisers said.

One thing Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, does is create a line item in his monthly budget for one-off expenses, such as an unexpected medical bill. This gives him a cushion in his budget and enables him to more fully examine how much he is spending each month, said Prof. Alter, who has studied overspending.

People might also wish to include an escalating buffer into their budgets of say, 2% to 5% a year, to account for inflation, he said.

Jay Zigmont, a financial planner in Water Valley, Miss., looks at clients’ total take-home income from the year, subtracts everything they must spend money on such as their mortgage and how much they saved. The remaining number is how much they spent on discretionary spending.

In most cases, clients are surprised they spent so much, he said.

Once people know how much they spend, Britta Koepf, a financial planner in Independence, Ohio, suggests they practice mindful spending. Before any purchase, ask yourself if you really want or need what you are buying. Frequently, the answer is yes, but sometimes waiting five seconds will prevent you from overspending, she said.

You can also practice mindfulness by delaying purchases further.

“A lot of the time, if I tell myself that I will purchase it next week, I find that I am no longer interested a week later,” she said.


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