Estate Planning: Mistakes or Misunderstandings

Top Estate Planning Mistakes or Misunderstandings – And How to Avoid Them

We have all heard the phrase: nothing in this world can be certain in life, except death and taxes. As an estate planner, I address these two issues every day. I counsel clients on the best strategies to pass their estates to their loved ones, how to efficiently manage their affairs if they can’t make decisions for themselves, and advise them on the most financially efficient ways to accomplish their goals. With nearly 20 years of estate planning experience, I have collected a list of common mistakes or misunderstandings.

#1. DIY Documents.

Estate plans should not be considered a “Do It Yourself” endeavor. With the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney, you ensure that you’re considering all the issues, your planning goals are met, and your legacy will be easily passed on to others. Wills completed through automated computer programs or purchased at stationary stores may result in negative financial and substantive impacts to your loved ones.

#2. “I Don’t Need an Estate Plan.”

Everyone can benefit from an estate plan. Even if you think you don’t own anything, everyone should have a financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. Did you know that if you don’t create your own individualized estate plan, then the state of Oregon has a “One Size Fits All” plan for you? Unfortunately, Oregon’s “One Size Fits All” plan doesn’t meet the customized needs of many people, and it can lead to unintended consequences.

#3. Choosing the Wrong Decision Maker.

Many times, a parent will want their adult children to work together to make financial and medical decisions when the parent can no longer do so. Unfortunately, in my experiences, many times these types of plans don’t work well. Instead, when siblings disagree, an impasse may occur. In the worst-case scenario, litigation may be the only solution to resolve the conflict. Other times, people choose a friend for help, and then for a variety of reasons, the friend is no longer able to help. And on occasion a trusted person turns and becomes a financial abuser. Picking the right decision maker, aka fiduciary, is very important and should be a well-informed and thoughtful process.

#4. Thinking a Will Avoids Probate.

Probate is a court supervised administration of a decedent’s estate. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think probate is the 9th level of Dante’s Inferno; and as an attorney, I am very familiar with the rules of court procedure. For certain situations, probate is a beneficial process. But time and time again, clients have the misunderstanding that their wills are not subject to probate. They are shocked when they learn that a will almost always ensures that an estate will be probated. To avoid probate, consider creating a revocable trust.

#5. Letting Your Plan Collect Dust.

Having a plan, but not looking at it again is a mistake. Estate planning is a dynamic process. The plan should not be chiseled in stone and then set on a shelf, never to be thought of again. In general, I recommend that clients review their estate plans every five years. And sooner if there have been significant life changes, such as marriages, divorces, births, substantial changes in assets, medical diagnoses, etc.

#6. “I’m Not Rich, So I Don’t Care About Estate Taxes.”

Thinking you don’t have enough to be concerned about estate taxes (also known as “The Death Tax”) may be a mistake. Even if you own less than $11.58 million which is the 2020 amount when the federal estate tax hits, your estate may still be subject to state estate tax. Both Oregon and Washington have state level estate tax. Without specific tax planning, an Oregonian who dies with a net worth more than $1 million has exposure to Oregon estate tax. The same is true for Washingtonians. However, Washington’s amount is more generous at $2.193 million in 2020.

It is never too late to prepare an estate plan. If you have more questions or want to talk about your estate planning goals and needs, contact one of our estate planning attorneys. Our combined years of estate planning experience is over 130 years.

Be sure to check out SYK’s newest video – featuring Anastasia and focusing on Estate Planning.

Anastasia (Stacie) Yu Meisner is a member of the SYK Estate Planners practice. Her practice focuses on estate planning, mediation, probate, trust and estate administration. In addition, she also works with guardianships and conservatorships, as well as business transactions and formation.

Oregon WINGS Posts “Get a Life Plan”  

Oregon’s Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) posted a solid plan for what we should all consider, as part of planning for your life – and death.

Their web page covers four plans:

  • Plan for your assets during your lifetime
  • Plan for your medical decisions
  • Plan for your assets at your death
  • Plan for your body after your death

They also have good pointers on a variety of helpful topics:

  • How should I start a conversation with my loved ones about my plan?
  • What if my loved ones disagree with my wishes?
  • Where should I store my documents?
  • Should I give copies of my documents to my loved ones?

These are a good place to start, but for most of us, to obtain a comprehensive Life (and Death) Plan, it is best to talk to an estate, trust and tax planning attorney to set you and your legacy up for success. Fortunately, we have a whole wing of such talent here at SYK.

Victoria Blachly: SYK AttorneyVictoria Blachly is a partner at SYK, and an experienced fiduciary litigator that works with many elderly clients, cases and causes.

Times are a-changin’ … So should your documents.

“The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now, will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last,
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan wrote these lyrics to ‘the times they are a-changin’ in September of 1964, while probably examining the political and racial upheaval he saw around him. When I hear the song these days, however, I’m convinced that the last verse is actually about updating business and estate planning documents. Bear with me…

2013 has brought changes to the tax structure that impact all of us and our clients: higher income and capital gains rates, higher estate tax exemptions, expiration of the 2% payroll tax holiday, the extension of portability, and the long-term patch to the Alternative Minimum Tax, to name a few. In the tax world, the times they are almost always a’ changin’, so it makes sense to occasionally review your estate and business documents to make sure this important paperwork reflects these changes appropriately.

Many of our clients’ families are going through transitions. (“The present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fading”). The birth or death of a family member, marriage, divorce, graduation, retirement, changes in jobs, receipt of an inheritance, and similar events often prompt the question: Does this change need to be addressed in my estate planning documents or the organizational documents for my business? If you think the answer might be “yes”, you are probably right.

Many of our clients also come to us because their businesses are going through a transition where the order is changing, or is going to change in the near future. Drawing the proper lines around how the next generation will inherit and manage a business can be done in many different ways. Some arrangements provide a business owner’s heirs with equal shares in managing the business and splitting its profits (and risks), and some arrangements hire a property manager to take over the day-to-day operation while the constantly-fighting children inherit profit rights and nothing more. There are many agreements that fall in between these extremes. There is a lot of room to customize the plan to the business (and family) involved, depending on taxes, family dynamics, and other factors. Some of these transitions go really well and some go terribly wrong. The ones that go smoothly usually involve well thought out written plans, open lines of communication, and children that are on good terms.

I am often asked how often our clients should review their estate and business planning documents. The answer is: whenever the times are a-changin’.

I hope this post has not ruined Bob Dylan’s music for any of our readers.

You can watch Bob Dylan perform ‘The times they are a changin’ at the White House here:

Through the force, higher taxes you will see.

A galaxy’s worth of nerds rejoiced when news broke that George Lucas sold the Star Wars franchise to Disney in October, 2012. More movies are on the way, and this nerd is excited about them. At the time of the sale, Mr. Lucas said that he always envisioned the Star Wars empire (no pun intended) would live on long after he was gone and that he felt he was leaving the franchise in good hands. What he was probably thinking was, “my CPA and my lawyer told me to do it.”

The Star Wars sale was closed in late-October, 2012, when there was a great deal of uncertainty in the tax world and the “fiscal cliff” was looming on the horizon. What was certain at the time was that the Bush era long term capital gain tax rate of 15% was set to expire at midnight on December 31st. It was widely expected that the tax rate on these gains, especially for individuals in the highest income tax brackets, would be the target of democratic lawmakers in the fiscal cliff negotiations. It was also known that the new Unearned Income Medicare Contribution tax of 3.8% would kick in for gains recognized by high-income taxpayers like Mr. Lucas, in January, 2013.    

So what did Mr. Lucas do? He sold in 2012 for just over $4 billion: $2 billion in cash and 40 million shares of Disney stock (valued at $2,000,800,000 on 10/31/2012). It is impossible to know the exact tax figures without information on Mr. Lucas’ tax basis in the Star Wars franchise at the time of the sale, but we can make some educated guesses. Mr. Lucas probably recognized close to $2 billion in gain in 2012 and he owes the IRS approximately $300 million in long term capital gains tax on receipt of this cash. Mr. Lucas will recognize (and be taxed on) gains on the Disney stock whenever he decides to sell his shares. It has been speculated that Mr. Lucas may donate the shares to charity which could reduce or eliminate the tax bill when the stock is sold.

Had Mr. Lucas waited to sell Star Wars until 2013, the $2 billion he received in cash would have been taxed at the new 20% rate agreed to under the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, adding an additional $100 million to his capital gain tax bill. The 3.8% Medicare Contribution tax would have added another $75 million, bringing his total tax bill to about $475 million.

Whether this sale strategy was outlined by a CPA who was reading the Congressional tea leaves or Mr. Lucas turned to a more trusted source for his tax planning (“Through the force, the future – and rising taxes – you will see…”), the result is the same: Mr. Lucas probably saved close to $175 million in taxes by selling when he did. The gains from the sale will be going to educational charities, who will put the extra $175 million to good use. You can read more about Mr. Lucas’ charitable plans here:

The sale of the Star Wars franchise presents a good opportunity to analyze some of the effects that the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 has on a high-income earning taxpayers. We will be discussing these recent changes to the income and estate tax calculations at a seminar in our office on March 7, 2013, at 7:30 am. A light breakfast will be served. If you would like to attend this complementary seminar, please RSVP to or 503-226-2966. May the force be with you.

What happens when a trustee has too much discretion?

The executors for the estate of Whitney Houston filed a petition last week to amend some of the distribution language in Whitney’s Last Will. The wording in question outlines the trust to be created for her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown’s benefit. The executors are working to amend the Last Will to provide the Trustee with less discretion over payments to Bobbi Kristina. The petition states that Bobbi Kristina "is a highly visible target for those who would exert undue influence over her inheritance and/or seek to benefit from respondent’s resources and celebrity."

Whitney’s Last Will gave the Trustee of Bobbi Kristina’s trust liberal discretion to make payments of principal and income out of the trust for Bobbi Kristina’s benefit. Whitney’s Last Will also outlined the following series of principal payments to Bobbi Kristina: 1/10th of the principal when she turned 21, 1/6 when she turned 25, the remaining balance when she turned 30. Language of this sort is found in many estate planning documents.

In Oregon, and in most states, attorneys have a handful of ways to try to alter distributions in order to protect vulnerable beneficiaries. The text of properly executed legal documents is difficult to argue against, however, no matter how compelling or heart wrenching the story is about the beneficiary’s circumstances. The facts of each specific case determine the strategy when amending these sorts of provisions.

Whitney Houston’s estate is dealing with arguing family members, issues over control, and servicing the sizeable debt Whitney left behind. These issues come up fairly often when administering estates. My colleague Glen Goland and I will be discussing some of the practical lessons we can learn from the estates of Presidents, Princesses and Rock Stars at a 90 minute seminar in our office next week. Our meeting will take place from 7:30 to 9 AM on Thursday October 11. To register for this seminar, please contact us at or 503-226-2966. Space is limited, so be sure to contact us soon.

“Send lawyers, guns and money, they’d get me out of this…”

The first cassette I ever owned was Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, purchased in 1982. Ten years later, my mom bought the soundtrack to the movie “The Body Guard”, which featured Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I will always love you”. ‘Thriller’ has now sold over 65 million copies and ‘The Body Guard’ has sold over 40 million, making these two albums the number one and number four best selling albums of all time, respectively. Between the two of them, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson sold well over 250 million records during their lifetimes.

Unfortunately, selling millions of albums is not the only thing Whitney and Michael had in common. Both stars died over the last three years, both had well-documented battles with substance abuse (that may have lead to their deaths), and both were deeply in debt when they died. Whitney Houston borrowed tens of millions of dollars against the sales of records she had not yet made and Michael Jackson owed millions to a long line of creditors, including promoters, banks, and the second son of the king of Bahrain, among others.

Substance abuse and personal debt issues come up regularly in the estate planning process. Where appropriate, many parents condition receipt of trust funds on the passing of drug tests or attending counseling. A properly drafted trust may also protect your assets from the creditors of one of your beneficiaries. If you have relatives who struggle with debt or substance abuse issues, you may want to consider a trust as part of your estate plan.

If you have personal loans, documenting them properly may save your family attorney fees. The federal and state estate tax returns include schedules of the assets and liabilities of the decedent. These schedules are essentially a snapshot of everything a person owned (and owed) when he or she died. Tracking the debts of a decedent is often one of the more challenging parts of compiling the estate tax schedules, because many personal debts are informally documented, if they are documented at all. If you have personal loans, you should discuss these loans with your estate planning attorney, as properly drafted loan documents, combined with accurate amortization schedules, can save your attorney time (and therefore save your family money) during the administration of your estate.

One more note – there are provisions of the tax code which penalize parties for loans made at below market interest rates. If you have a substantial loan – whether personal or business – you may want to discuss the loan terms with your attorney.

The estates of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston have benefited from increased record sales following the stars’ deaths. A large part of the estate income from these sales will be going to the satisfaction of personal debts. Most estates do not have this sort of income to offset debts and the debts are instead paid from the residue of the estate. For this reason, debts (including your home mortgage) should be considered when planning the distribution of your assets under a will or trust.

Most families will (hopefully) never have to deal with the sort of  substance abuse and debt problems that followed Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston through the later years of their lives. When the issues do arise, however, properly drafted documents may be the family’s best protection agaist creditors and predators who are looking to get access to the assets of the estate. The key, as always, is to communicate the specifics of your situation to an attorney who specializes in estate and business planning.  

Have You Updated Your Estate Plan Lately?

The recent passing of 27 year-old entertainer Amy Winehouse is tragic on many levels. Her family and friends will never be able to replace their lost daughter and friend; her fans will forever miss Amy’s undeniable talent and unique voice. Her well documented substance abuse problems, shared with the world through 24-hour cable news and the internet, were a tragedy in themselves.

Ms. Winehouse is the most recent in a long line of musicians who have left us at 27, a line that includes Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, among others. Unlike many of the musicians on this list, however, it appears Amy Winehouse had sound legal counsel somewhere along the way.

First, a little background: Amy Winehouse married Blake Fielder-Civil in 2007. The couple divorced in 2009. During the time that they were married, Winehouse’s second LP, “Back to Black” took her from anonymity to superstardom. She won 5 Grammy Awards and the album shot to #1 on charts around the world. Mr. Fielder-Civil’s life was traveling in the opposite direction – six months into their marriage he was sentenced to 27 months in prison for assaulting a man and then offering the man $400,000 to not show up in court. He was recently arrested again and is currently serving a 32 month sentence for robbery.

Under British law, Ms. Winehouse’s ex-spouse would have been in line to inherit the bulk of her estate, which is estimate to be worth over $15 million. Fortunately, in this case, reports indicate that she executed a new will after the divorce. This new will, according to published reports, leaves her estate to her mother and family while excluding her ex-husband.

The estate planning lesson in this case is clear: Individuals should update their estate plans when they go through life-altering events like marriage, divorce, retirement, having children, or becoming international rock stars.

Is Your Pet Prepared? (Part III)

There are several ways that attorneys can utilize estate-planning documents to provide for pets upon the death of their owner. One popular method is leaving a sum of money to a caretaker in the pet owner’s will. There are two potential issues to consider with this method of planning: The pet owner has no way of ensuring that the assets will be used to cover pet-related expenses and there may be negative tax consequences to leaving the caretaker a sum of money outright. These same problems can exist when an owner makes a monetary bequest to a pet caregiver towards the end of his or her life.

These factors were overblown in many of the publications I read when preparing my own estate plan. Under today’s $5 million federal estate tax exemption, there are virtually zero federal estate or gift tax implications when a person leaves $5-10,000 to a trusted caretaker. There may be state tax implications in some circumstances and your attorney should discuss potential state taxes with you when considering this option. As for guaranteeing the money is spent properly? Many of my clients have told me that they would not be naming the person to look after the pets if they did not trust them. This issue is a non-factor in these cases and in others it is the primary factor – it depends on the relationship the owner has with the potential caretaker(s).

A second way that pet owners can utilize wills to provide for their pets is by making a bequest to animal organizations that will work to place your pet in a home if you leave assets to the organization. The Oregon Humane Society’s Friends Forever program is an example of one of these programs. The Portland-based shelter adopted out over 17,000 animal in 2010, including all of the animals that came in under ‘Friends Forever’. 

If a pet owner makes no provisions for his or her animal, the pet will become part of the owner’s residuary estate and will usually pass to a new owner under the residuary clause of the will. In Oregon the estate may reimburse the caretaker who looks after the animal immediately after the owner’s death.

Attorneys regularly address these (and other) pet planning issues through the use of the pet trust. Pet trusts determine custody of the animal, provide instruction for the caretaker and pay for the animals’ expenses. Pet trusts can be stand-alone documents or they can be incorporated into the pet owner’s will or trust. Pet trusts should be considered very carefully, as they can be surprisingly expensive to administer. If your animal is one that will likely outlive a caretaker or two (a parrot or turtle for example) or is particularly expensive to care for (a horse or a pet with high medical expenses maybe) then a pet trust might be the perfect document for you. If it is just your cat or your dog, carefully consider your pets needs vs. the amount of administration required to maintain the pet trust.

The first question an owner must answer when preparing a pet trust is, “who will look after the animal on a day to day basis?” The caretaker(s) should be familiar with the pets and should receive a copy of the pet instruction letter discussed in my previous blog post. Pet owners should consider the tax implications involved when leaving assets to a caretaker. The owner may consider providing additional compensation to the caretaker to make up for any tax liability imposed due to the financial bequest under the pet trust.

The next individual an owner may name in a pet trust is the trustee. The trustee is in charge of tracking trust expenses, bank accounts and, in some states, preparing trust tax returns and distributing an annual accounting. A pet owner should consider these activities (and their associated cost) when selecting a trustee for their pet trust.

The last person an owner may name in the pet trust is the trust protector. This independent person has no role in the day-to-day operation of the trust. He or she is in charge of monitoring the overall performance of the trust to ensure the pet is being cared for properly. This trust protector checks in on the actions of the caretaker and the trustee. The trust protector holds the other parties accountable when there are questions about the administration of the trust. ORS 130.185 allows for an interested party to petition the court on the pet’s behalf, so if even if the document does not name a trust protector, a friend of family member could petition the court to remove a trustee if the animal was not being cared for as outlined in the trust.

A word of warning: Not all pet trusts are created equal. There is a lot more to a well written pet trust than merely listing the people to serve in the roles outlined above. These documents should also allocate funds, account for expenses of trust administration and occasionally outline investment strategies, among other things. The trust should clearly outline which expenses may be paid from the trust property and tell the reader exactly how these fees are to be paid. A pet trust should also provide for back-ups in the event that the named individuals cannot serve.

The most famous pet trust of them all is the one that belonged to the late Leona Helmsley. This trust provided $12 million to care for her dog and the story garnered media attention around the world. The trust was established to pay for her dog Trouble’s expenses with any remaining assets passing to a charitable foundation at Trouble’s death. Helmsley’s executors petitioned the New York Court to reduce the amount of assets going to the trust, in an effort to minimize the taxes due on Helmsley’s estate. They were successful in their petition and the judge ordered the pet trust funded with “only” $2 million. The remaining assets flowed to the charitable foundation in a $10 million transfer that qualified for the charitable deduction.

The New York judge in the Helmsley case relied on the language of New York’s pet trust statute. In New York, and in states that have adopted the Uniform Trust Code’s pet trust language, courts may “determine the value of the trust property that exceeds the amount required for the intended use”. The courts may then reduce the funding of the pet trust accordingly and direct the excess assets into a resulting trust for the benefit of the settlor’s successor in interest.

The pet trust statutes in Oregon and Washington do not contain language allowing courts to reduce the amount of assets directed to these trusts. Had Leona Helmsley relocated to the Pacific Northwest, Trouble may still be living large off of $12 million. ORS 130.185 specifically states, “Property of a trust authorized by this section may be applied only to its intended use.” Similarly, RCW 11.118.030 provides, “no portion of the principal or income of the trust may be converted to the use of the trustee or to any use other than for the trust’s purpose or for the benefit of the designated animal or animals.”

While most of us will never have to worry about leaving a pet $12 million, there is an important lesson to be learned from Leona Helmsley’s pet trust. The $10 million implications of the seemingly subtle differences in the statutory language highlights the importance of putting together your pet’s long-term plan with an advisor that understands the delicate issues involved.

Is your pet prepared (Part II)

The first step in planning for pets is to address the question “who will take care of the animals in an emergency?” If there is a short-term disability or illness, do you have someone who will go to your home and feed the cat or walk the dog? Does that person have a key? Do they know where the dog food is? Are the animals familiar with this person?

The short-term caretaker may be identified by an informal agreement like the one we have with one of our family friends. He has a key to our place, knows the animals well and we have shown him where their food is kept, where the vet records are, etc. He has our family contact information and he is an emergency contact on file with our employers and the day care facilities we take our dog to.

Some of our clients have taken a more formalized approach by authorizing an agent to care for their animals in periods of disability and/or hospitalization. This is accomplished by adding language to the power of attorney that specifically grants an agent the power to care for the pet(s). The decision on whether to make a formal or an informal agreement with the caretaker depends on a number of owner-specific issues: the proximity of friends and family, the amount of time and/or work the pets require and the expenses involved in caring for the animals, to name a few.

Regardless of whether an owner takes a formal or an informal approach to short-term planning, it is most important that they have a plan and they write it down. ORS § 130.185 instructs Oregon courts by providing for, “the liberal construction of oral or written instruments as enforceable pet trusts and not unenforceable honorary trusts.” Make a plan. Write it down.

There is a second document that pet owners should be creating for both their short-term and long-term planning: instructions for the day-to-day care of the animals. This document should include all of the necessary contact information for vets, trainers, kennels, etc. It should note the exercise routines of the pets, their feeding habits and any other relevant information. It should tell the caretaker the location of the animals’ health records, vaccination history and licensing information. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 22 percent of the nation’s dogs and 25 percent of our cats live in single person households. Creating a detailed set of instructions is particularly important for these pet owners, as it is less likely there will be another individual who is familiar with the pets’ day-to-day routines. A detailed instruction letter is also crucial if your pet has special dietary needs, medical concerns or training issues.

A well drafted estate plan provides the family with adequate instructions on how matters are to be handled during a time of crisis. If your family includes household pets, you should think about what would happen to them in a short term emergency. Do you have a friend or family member that would look after your pets? If so, talk to that person about the arrangement and write it down. In my next blog post I will discuss planning for the long-term care of our furry friends.

Fill Out Your Beneficiary Forms Carefully

There are three ways that ownership of an asset is transferred at death – by law (a joint tenancy arrangement for example), by bequest (through a will or trust) and by contract (through the use of a beneficiary designation). The Appeals Court of Oregon’s recent decision in the case In re Marriage of Keller (232 Or.App. 341) reminds us that an individual that is planning on transferring assets through the use of beneficiary designations (primarily insurance proceeds and IRA/pension benefits) must make sure that the beneficiaries stated on the plan or the policy match up with his or her planning objectives.

In Keller, the court was presented with a complicated (but not uncommon) family situation. A man and his wife agreed to a divorce decree in which the husband retained ownership of a number of assets, including several insurance policies. The divorce agreement contained a provision which read, in part, “each party releases and relinquishes any and all claims or rights which he or she may now have, may have had, or may have in the future against the other as a result of the marriage of the parties, including but not limited to spousal support.”

After the husband’s death, the executor of his estate determined that the decedent’s ex-spouse was still listed as a beneficiary on one insurance policy. The executor asked the ex-spouse to disclaim the insurance proceeds, the ex-spouse refused, and the executor sued the ex-spouse for violating the clause spelled out above. Three-and-a-half years later, the parties have received two judgments and are still fighting. The trial court ruled in favor of the ex-spouse and the Appeals Court of Oregon recently remanded the trial court decision and sent the case back to the lower court for a more detailed analysis of the divorce agreement entered into by the parties.

The moral of the story? When developing (and revising) an estate plan, it is important to pay particular attention to the individuals that you have named as beneficiaries on insurance policies, IRA accounts and pension plans. Incorrectly naming the beneficiaries on these accounts can leave to prolonged court battles and unexpected (and expensive) results.