Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Man Who Mistook His Will for His Estate Plan



Oliver Sacks died a few months ago. Dr. Sacks was a neurologist and author who turned clinical case histories into best sellers. People are perhaps most familiar with his book Awakenings which was made into an Oscar nominated movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.
For Christmas I received a copy of Dr. Sack’s final book, Gratitude, a series of essays he wrote while facing cancer and his own mortality.  I look forward to reading it as I start the New Year.
I was first drawn to Dr. Sacks by the title of one of his books, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. The title essay refers to a man with visual agnosia, a visual cortex based impairment in recognizing objects despite normal eyesight. Hopefully, not many of us will suffer from visual agnosia and make that kind of mistake. 
As an estate planning lawyer, the title of that Sack's book always makes me think of a legal planning mistake that many people make. This common error is thinking that having a Will prepared is all the estate planning they need. In other words, mistaking their Will for their estate plan.
Estate planning is planning for the disposition of your property upon your death. It involves putting the right legal tools in place so that after your death the right people receive the right inheritance, in the right amounts, at the right times, with a minimum of family discord and stress.    
It is a mistake to think that your estate planning is complete because you have a Will. Because your Will may actually have very little impact on who gets what after you are gone. 
For many of us, most of our assets will pass to our heirs based upon how those assets are owned and how beneficiary forms have been set up. No matter what your Will says, your retirement accounts, annuities, life insurance policies, and possibly some of your mutual funds and bank accounts will pass according to their beneficiary designations, not your Will. Assets that are owned jointly with another person may pass by right of survivorship. Your Will may be irrelevant.
To create an estate plan that meets your goals, you need to make certain that your assets are properly titled and your beneficiary designations are correct. Your lawyer can help with this. Then you need to have your lawyer draft a Will that fits in with the rest of your plan. 
Your estate plan is like a jigsaw puzzle.  Everything needs to fit together if your plan is to meet your goals. If any parts of the puzzle are missing, your family will end up with an ugly picture.
Don’t risk being remembered by your loved-ones as the "Man who Mistook his Will for an Estate Plan."  Your elder law and estate planning lawyer can help you put together a comprehensive estate plan that will implement your true intentions and fully protect your family after you are gone.  
For more on Oliver Sacks, here is a link to Charley Rose interviews: http://tinyurl.com/zhxybly. And here is a link to interviews with Dr. Sacks on NPR’s Fresh Air program: http://tinyurl.com/go2nz5d

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