estate planning

25 Estate Planning Life Hacks from a 25 Year Estate Planning Attorney

Learn valuable estate planning life hacks from a seasoned estate planning attorney to protect your assets, family, and legacy.

I've been an estate planning attorney for more than 25 years. I love my work because I've been able to meet thousands of clients in ways most professionals do not. To do my job well, I must learn about my clients' families, assets, and goals. As a result, I've seen and learned a lot over the years.

Here are 25 estate planning life hacks I've learned, in no particular order.

  1. Do your estate planning so your wishes are clear and unambiguous. Create a revocable living trust so your children don't have to go through probate.

  2. Review your estate plan with your estate planning attorney every few years to make sure it is up to date and that it is funded to avoid probate. California probate is bad. It is expensive and takes a long time.

  3. Don't try to be clever and save a few bucks by writing your own estate plan. DIY estate plans are usually a disaster. But you will never know. You will be dead, and your family will have to clean up the mess.

  4. Clean out your cabinets and garage, and get rid of all the stuff you've acquired over the years except the valuable, useful, and sentimental things. Give away or throw away everything else. The messiest part of a trust administration is disposing of mom and dad's collective junk. Don't create a lasting memory in your children's minds that you were a hoarder. 

  5. Even better, as you get older, start giving your children and grandchildren the family keepsakes and sentimental items. Don't wait until you die to see them enjoy these special items.

  6. If you have enough resources, think about making gifts to your children now, while you are alive and healthy, so you can watch them enjoy and make use of your bounty. Bonus points if you can help them with a downpayment to buy a home. It's not easy to buy a home in California. Your family will appreciate the gift more now than decades later when you pass away, and they don't really need it. 

  7. Avoid getting a reverse mortgage if you can. Reverse mortgage companies will be difficult for your living trust's trustee to deal with and may force your trustee to sell your home, even if your children want to keep it.

  8. Make sure your children understand the broad outline of your estate plan, so there are no surprises. Surprises and shattered expectations lead to lawsuits.

  9. Make peace with your children. Healthy family relationships will make your living trust administration go smoothly. More importantly, they will improve your life and your children's lives.

  10. Use a password app to generate and keep your digital passwords. Then keep the password to your password app in your safe where your trustee can access it and use it to access your accounts if needed.

  11. Don't appoint your son's ex-wife - the one he still hates after all these years, as your successor trustee. He will make her job as trustee very difficult.

  12. Tell your estate planning attorney to write your living trust so your children receive their inheritance in asset protection trusts. This will significantly protect their inheritance from divorce and lawsuits.

  13. Don't add your new spouse or significant other on the deed to your home. Read more here.

  14. Unless you are already wealthy enough, get enough term life insurance to comfortably provide for your family if you expire before life expectancy. Hopefully, you will outlive the term, and by then, you won't need it.

  15. Your kids need you, not your presents. Quantity time with your kids beats quality time. Grinding it out at work to make your millions and waiting until then to spend time with your kids won't work. It will be too late to recover your relationship with them. They need you while they are growing up.

  16. Investing in your family can save money on your estate planning attorney costs. If your family gets along, your estate planning will be simple, and when you pass away, your living trust administration will go smoothly. Dysfunctional families need complicated estate plans and will have contentious trust administrations.

  17. Calm down at your kid's youth basketball games. He is not the next Steph Curry. Enjoy the time you can spend together.

  18. Banks don't like Durable Powers of Attorney. If your child is helping you pay your bills, consider adding her to your bank account to avoid fighting with your bank over your durable power of attorney.

  19. Best investment advise you've never heard: try to stay in shape to live a long life. Think of all the compounding on your investments if you live to your 90s. Long-term is a superpower. Stay healthy.

  20. Kindness and positive energy make you attractive at any age. Those with a spark in their eye in their 80s and 90s are kings and queens.

  21. Name the child who is the best communicator and most responsible as your living trust successor trustee, agent of your durable power of attorney, and executor of your will - regardless of whether he is the oldest or youngest. Don't choose your oldest just because he is your oldest.

  22. Develop a long-term relationship with an estate planning attorney, a financial planner/advisor, and an accountant. Good ones will save you time and money. Good advice and acting on that advice are invaluable.

  23. If you own several rental properties and you intend to leave them to your children through your living trust, it might be cleaner and less acrimonious to give each child a separate property rather than giving them joint ownership of each property or, have your estate planning attorney include instructions in your living trust for your trustee to sell the properties upon your death. Your children may not be able to work together to manage the properties - leading to fights and ill will. If you give each one a separate property, or cash from the sale, they won't fight. Each can manage his or her own property. If you choose to allocate separate properties to each child and the properties are not of equal value, you can make up the difference with equalizing allocations of your other living trust assets or life insurance.

  24. When you inherit your parent's California home, you can avoid California Prop 19 property tax reassessment by moving in and making it your home or selling it and letting the new buyer pay the increased property tax. 

  25. Attorney billable hours put attorneys at odds with their clients in many cases. If there is a clear beginning and end to the legal work, such as with preparing your living trust estate plan and trust administration, find an estate planning attorney who charges fixed fees. You will know what you are getting into, there will be no surprise billing, and you and your attorney will be on the same team, both with skin in the game.

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