Estate Plans Are Not One Size Fits All

Jeff Witz, CFP®

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Having a good estate plan can be critical in ensuring that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. While the quality of online tools continues to improve at a good pace, working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to ensure assets are distributed according to your wishes and in the most tax-efficient way possible. The drawback to using an attorney is often the cost, as some can charge a significant amount of money for their services. To avoid the higher cost, sometimes people attempt to make an estate plan online without consulting legal and financial professionals.  This can lead to mistakes.

These are some estate planning mistakes that can be avoided with professional counseling.

            Having an outdated estate plan and/or Will:  Your life and financial circumstances may change, so it’s a good idea to review your estate plan at least once a year.  For instance, if any of the following life changes occur, your estate plan should be modified accordingly.

  • Your parents have died so they can no longer be beneficiaries.
  • Your children have gotten married and had children of their own.
  • You have divorced and remarried.
  • Your assets have grown (or decreased) significantly.
  • You no longer own a home, or you purchased additional property.

            Relying only on joint tenancy to avoid probate. Many assets are transferred outside of wills. For example, assets titled in joint tenancy pass to the surviving joint tenant, not per the terms of your will.  However, assets titled in joint tenancy only avoid probate on the first death. When the surviving spouse dies, the assets will typically end up in probate.

            Not coordinating a Will and a Trust. Creating a trust and transferring assets to it may help you avoid probate and save taxes. However, if you have a will and a trust, be sure the documents are aligned so your wishes will ultimately be carried out.

            Titling assets incorrectly. You want your intentions to be carried out for all assets, including your primary residence, additional residence, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts and even vehicles. Designate a beneficiary (or beneficiaries) on all IRAs, employer provided retirement plans and other qualified accounts.

            Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. Let’s say you name one beneficiary on an account and that individual dies. If you do not update the beneficiary designation, there will be no successor to receive the account assets upon your death.  It is generally recommended to name both primary and contingent beneficiaries on your retirement accounts.
            Failing to name a person to make health care decisions. All 50 states permit you to appoint someone to communicate for you in the event you become incapacitated. Depending on the state, these legal documents are known as living wills, medical directives, health care proxies or advance health care directives. Use one of these documents to designate someone you trust to make sure your wishes are carried out.

            Relying on outdated or stale financial powers of attorney. You may have selected someone to make financial decisions for you through a power of attorney. However, after you signed the document, your circumstances or your relationship with the person may have changed. Consult with an attorney about how to adjust your financial power of attorney.

Having a good estate plan is critical, and some of these issues can be complex. Going it alone creates opportunities for missteps. Speak with your estate planning expert to ensure you have a proper estate plan in place so that your heirs are taken care of in the way you intend.

Jeff Witz, CFP® welcomes readers’ questions.  He can be reached at 800-883-8555 or at

200 North LaSalle Street – Suite 2300 – Chicago, Illinois 60601

312-419-3733 – Toll Free 800-883-8555 – Fax 312-332-4908 –

Investment advisory services offered through MEDIQUS Asset Advisors, Inc. Securities offered through Ausdal Financial Partners, Inc.  Member FINRA/SIPC ∙ 5187 Utica Ridge Rd ∙ Davenport, IA 52807 ∙ 563-326-2064 ∙ MEDIQUS Asset Advisors and Ausdal Financial Partners, Inc. are independently owned and operated.


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