Anxiety Should Not Delay Estate Planning

Putting together an estate plan is one of the most important things we do for ourselves and for our loved ones. Yet, it’s also one of the most difficult because it forces us to think of things we’d prefer not to think about. The inevitability of death is a big part of that. But estate planning also brings up anxiety about what we want our legacies to be, how our loved ones will go on without us and whether the choices we make for them will cause strife in the family. 

All of these concerns are understandable – and very human – but allowing them to prevent you from putting together an estate plan is a mistake. The examples of several celebrities who died without wills and whose estates were fought over for years in probate courts – Prince, Aretha Franklin and Sonny Bono come to mind – should serve as a reminder that none of us are immune to death. 

Following are some of the most common mistakes made around estate planning, and some ideas about how to avoid or deal with them.  

Mistake #1 – Procrastination 

Everyone needs an estate plan, and they need it now regardless of age. Whether you are 60 years old and nearing the end of your work life, 45 years old and still building your wealth or 30 years old and just starting a business, you need an estate plan.  

Many people fail to start an estate plan because death is not a pleasant topic to talk about, and because they don’t want to make hard decisions or mistakes.

They may also want to avoid conflict within their families over the choices they make in their wills or other estate documents. 

But if death comes prematurely, your beneficiaries may be stuck with ushering your estate through probate court for the next year or more. More importantly, if you don’t have estate documents in place – including a will or trust, proper titling on deeds and beneficiaries named on investment accounts – the laws of your state will take precedence, which may not be aligned with your wishes or the best interests of your heirs. 

You can minimize anxieties about estate planning by working with an advisor who will help you break down the process into easily accomplished tasks. For example: 

  • First, focus on putting together a personal financial statement that provides a roadmap to all your cash savings, assets such as investments and real estate, holdings such as a business or farm and miscellaneous items such as art collections or antique automobiles. Where possible, include account balances/valuations and where the supporting documents, passwords and assets can be located. Just having a document listing all your financial holdings and assets can help clarify the importance of moving on to the next step of drafting a will or creating trusts to hold your assets. 
  • Talk with your advisor about your concerns. No matter what is holding you back, your advisor has heard it before and guided other clients through the process. Your advisor will help you think about estate planning from a business perspective, from a tax perspective and from the perspective of family harmony.  
  • Remember, what you decide today isn’t set in stone. A good estate plan should be flexible enough to respond to changes that may occur in your life. 

Mistake #2 – The Plan is Never Reviewed 

The only thing that is certain in life is change. We get older, our children get older, our families change and grow, our priorities and wishes for the future change.  

Estate documents should be reviewed every two to three years to ensure they still reflect your wishes. Perhaps your family has grown and you want to include something in your will or trust for new grandchildren. Maybe there has been a death or divorce that changes your priorities for distributing your wealth. Or perhaps you have added new assets such as real estate or investments that should be included in a trust. 

Life happens, and your estate plan must keep up. That won’t happen without a periodic review of the documents. 

Mistake #3 – Titling & Beneficiary Lists 

During a periodic review, a related matter may come up – the accurate titling of assets and listing of beneficiaries. 

Perhaps you want all assets to be split equally among your four children, but only three children are listed as beneficiaries on an investment account because the fourth wasn’t yet born when you opened the account. You may assume your family will understand that you intended all your children to receive the assets, but they may not, and the resulting strife is not something you want your family to remember you by. 

You may also inadvertently circumvent your estate documents by inappropriately titling certain assets. In most states, you can include rights of survivorship for your children on a real estate deed so it automatically transfers to them upon your death. But it’s crucial that your intentions are clear in the titling of the deed. 

Finally, beware of the temptation to “change the will” every time a family member does something that makes you angry. Disinheriting an heir is not a simple matter, as it involves changing all the deeds, titles and beneficiary lists on your assets. Moreover, some of the trust instruments may be irrevocable. 

Mistake #4 – Communication 

For most people, ensuring family harmony so their loved ones are not fighting over assets when they’re gone is the most important part of estate planning. That can be tough, especially when there are assets that are not easily divisible.  

That’s where communication comes in. Your advisor may recommend that you write a letter to your loved ones, and may even provide a template for such a letter. This is a tool with which you can explain why you structured your estate the way you did and what you want to accomplish with it. There is no guarantee that everyone will be happy with the outcome, but if they understand your thinking they will be more inclined to accept your estate decisions with equanimity.  

Oftentimes, spouses find it hard to communicate with each other about estate planning decisions. Perhaps they find it difficult to talk about death, or they disagree on matters of asset distribution. Relying on your advisor as a listener and mediator in these situations can help smooth the way forward. 

Communication issues become even more complicated and important when there have been divorces and there may be conflicts between spouses and ex-spouses. Again, relying on an advisor to act as a mediator can help accomplish a result that everyone can live with. 

Mistake #5 – Plan for Final Wishes 

Dealing with end-of-life issues is often the most emotional – and the most avoided – part of estate planning. Many people put together a strong estate plan, but fail to include anything about their wishes between now and death.  

Are there adequate provisions for final wishes? Has a long-term care plan been mapped out and funded? Do you think the kids will take care of you if you should become incapacitated? They may not have the skills to do so, and they likely need to stay focused on their work and building their wealth.

Caring for an elderly relative – even one they love dearly – can be a full-time all-consuming proposition that few people are really prepared for. 

Spare the kids that kind of commitment and include a long-term care insurance policy or funding for in-home care or for a residential placement in your estate plan, should that kind of care become necessary. 

Similarly, your estate plan should include a power of attorney naming which family members you want to speak and act for you if you become incapacitated. It also should include a healthcare proxy that would name representatives who would make healthcare decisions for you.  

Finally, your estate plan may include your wishes regarding a funeral and burial or cremation. 


These are heavy decisions, and they take time to work through. Most people spend more time planning vacations than planning their estates.  

But you need not do this alone. For help in taking the first steps toward putting together your estate plan, or in updating your existing estate plan, contact an Adams Brown advisor.