Having to go to court to settle the estate of a loved one is stressful on many levels. Litigation diminishes the value of your estate and delays its dispersal. Perhaps worst of all, estates embroiled in litigation due to ambiguity and questions about the deceased intent can tear a family apart, leaving lifelong scars.
There is action you can take to help avoid having your estate fought over in court. These five steps can add clarity to your intentions and reduce the possibility of your estate going through expensive and unnecessary litigation.
- It sounds simple; communicate to your heirs what your intentions are and how you want your estate distributed. This is very important when the disposition is not typical, that is not to natural heirs. If your estate is to be distributed unevenly or if a child is to be left out it is best to discuss the issue with them or leave a letter of explanation. More often than not it is the expectant heir that is left out or slighted that seeks a remedy in court; a letter of explanation can effectively keep their claim out of court.
- Make sure your estate documents are properly prepared; drafted by a trusted lawyer. The main reason for estate litigation is improperly drafted wills and trusts. Avoid online trust and will mills, the cookie cutter approach will leave you with documents rife with ambiguity. Properly drafted, customized to your individual circumstances, estate planning documents can assure that your estate is settled quickly and in accordance to your wishes.
- Periodically review and update your estates documents. An entire estate can be dragged into court because beneficiaries were not added or removed due to life circumstances. Just imagine the legal conundrum of disposing of a payable on death account whose beneficiary dies before the author. The review should also include updating the beneficiaries on life insurance, pensions and IRAs.
- Dividing up personal property is often a battle ground for surviving family members. It is not uncommon for disputes over personal items with more sentimental than monetary value to hold up the administration of an estate. By leaving specific instructions in your will or trust; or by using an easily updated personal property memorandum you can eliminate any questions in regard to your personal property and who should receive it at your passing.
- It is possible to preempt disputes over your estate by including a “no contest” clause. This clause attempts to discourage litigation of wills and trusts by providing that an heir challenging the provisions of your estate documents will be excluded from any inheritance. This clause carries varying weight depending on where you live; and it does not preclude an action brought against your estate made with probable cause and in good faith.
Your estate is the legacy you leave to your loved ones, having implications both financial and emotional that will last long after you are gone. The guidance of a qualified estate planning attorney can help you make that legacy a long and fruitful one for your family.