Debunking 5 Common Estate Planning Myths

There are five common myths that frustrate all estate planners—particularly because we know that not only are they patently untrue, but also because their continued circulation can be harmful.

1. Estate Planning is only for rich people. This is probably the single most common estate planning myth there is—and it is a myth. During a normal year the first $1 million dollars of your estate would transfer to your beneficiaries tax-free. (This is also the expected exemption amount for 2011.) By this standard it certain does seem that only “rich people” need estate planning, but when people add up the value of their home, their life insurance, savings, retirement account, etc., etc., etc. they often find that they are much closer to being a “rich person” than they thought. Not only this, but as we’ll get into in more detail below, estate planning is not only about saving on estate taxes, it’s also about controlling your wealth and protecting your own needs when the unexpected occurs.

2. “I have plenty of time.” AKA: Only old people need estate plans. First of all, just because you’re young doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen to you. But you know this, and anyway, this post is not about fear. Unexpected tragedies aside, an estate plan is useful even when you’re young because an estate plan is not just about death. A good estate plan will include not only a will, but also a healthcare directive and HIPAA Authorization (both of which are useful if you find yourself facing a surprise stay in the hospital), Power of Attorney documents (which you may need if you ever travel outside the country or are otherwise unable to sign for yourself on financial or legal documents), and legal documents relating to minor children (such as medical authorizations—an essential document if you leave your minor child with a babysitter for any extended period of time.)

3. Married people don’t need estate plans. While it is true that a married person with straightforward wishes for the distribution of their property has less need of estate planning, it does not necessarily follow that they can skip estate planning altogether. Under normal circumstances, any jointly held property will pass to the surviving spouse upon the death of the first spouse… But what happens if the surviving spouse gets re-married? What about the property you would specifically like to go to your children, or to your parents or siblings? And what if both you and your spouse die together? These are the reasons why even married people should consider drawing up a simple plan.

4. All I need is a quick will and I’m done. A quick will is certainly better than no will. And if you want to be technical, you don’t even need a quick will; after all, your state of residence has a plan already in place for you. The problem is that it may not be the plan you want. There is a saying that “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” This goes for wills (or any other legal document) as well. If you want the basics you can have the basics. But if you want the best, you’re going to need to spend a little more time on it.

5. Estate Planning is only about money. Although money is often one of the main motivating factors behind creating an estate plan, money is absolutely not what estate planning is all about. Estate planning is about people. It’s about your family and doing what’s right for them. Estate planning is not just about saving your family from estate taxes, or making sure Junior gets the house; it’s about leaving them peace of mind. A well thought-out will or trust saves them from a lengthy probate process, but also reassures siblings that they are doing what mom or dad really would have wanted. And a memorandum of intent gives you the opportunity to express the things that sometimes cannot be expressed during life. An estate plan is full of documents designed not just to save you or your heirs money, but to allow you to express your wishes and values even after your death. Estate Planning is about more than just money—it’s about family, legacy, and love.