Even with an estate plan, things can always happen that may cause confusion for the estate– or threaten the plan altogether. Below are three examples of worst-case scenarios and ways to demonstrate how a carefully crafted plan can address issues, from the predictable to the total surprise.
Scenario One: Family Members Battle One Another
Despite your best intentions, what happens if the people you care about most get into a knockdown, drag-out fight over your estate? Disputes over who should get what assets, how to interpret an unclear instruction from you, or how loved ones should manage your business can open old wounds.
Lawsuits between family members can drain your estate and tarnish your legacy. Family infighting can lead to less obviously dramatic problems as well. For instance, let’s say you name your daughter as the executor, and she holds a deep grudge against your youngest son. Your daughter cannot do something as drastic as rewriting your will to leave him out. However, she could drag her feet with the probate court, interpret the will “poorly” (unfairly privileging herself and your other son over your youngest), or engage in other shenanigans. In all of these cases, your youngest son would have to hire a lawyer and potentially get involved in a protracted legal battle. This is a bad outcome for everyone.
To prevent such scenarios, consider using an impartial (e.g. third party) trustee or executor. Moreover, speak with a qualified estate planning attorney to prepare for likely future conflicts among family members.
Scenario Two: Both Spouses Die Simultaneously
Many estate plans transfer assets to a surviving spouse, but what happens if both spouses die at or near the same time? This situation may be even more complicated if both spouses have separately owned assets or if the size of the estate is significant. In that case, asset distribution may depend on who predeceased whom, the amount of estate tax paid, and other factors. There are, however, ways to address this in an estate plan making it easier for your family to understand your intent, including, as recently discussed in Motley Fool:
- A simultaneous death clause that automatically names one spouse as the first to die;
- A survivorship deferral provision, delaying transfer of assets to a surviving spouse, thus preventing double probate and estate taxes; and
- A so-called “Titanic” clause that names a final beneficiary in the event all primary beneficiaries die at once.
Scenario Three: Passing Away Overseas
Expatriates may need particular care in estate planning. If a death occurs outside the U.S., foreign laws may conflict with provisions of an American-made estate plan. Thus a plan may need to be reviewed both for the US and other nations' laws. If you intend to live abroad for an extended period, as discussed in this New York Times article, it may be smart to draw up a second will consistent with those nations' laws, too. However, the starting point is completing your estate planning (will, trust, and other documents) here in the United States first.