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Florida Estate Planning Tips for Protecting Relationships

How estate planning can improve your relationships

Protecting and promoting healthy relationships is near and dear to everything that we do when helping people with estate planning matters.  A couple of caveats for this article are as follows.  First, estate planning is all about identifying key relationships with family and friends, both past, present and future, in so many ways.  Second, estate planning is a forum to improve relationships by placing focus on what is important in life, fostering communication, and prioritizing those key people in our lives. These two factors are the basis of the following Florida estate planning tips for protecting relationships between your friends and loved ones.

On the flip side, another unfortunate factor, is that poor planning paves the way for huge relational conflicts.

American writer and humorist Ambrose Bierce observed, “Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.”

Bierce’s remark alludes to an unfortunate but all-too-common scenario.  Whether caused by an ambiguous or absent will, squabbles over inheritances, or misunderstandings about a decedent’s final wishes, estate litigation in Florida and elsewhere is a difficult, costly, and emotionally painful process.  And the risk is often greater for high-net-worth individuals because, frankly, there is more to fight over.  Family dynamics such as sibling rivalry as it can impact Florida estate planning can also play a role and should be considered.

Fortunately, though, while death may be inevitable, estate litigation can be avoided—or at least made much less likely (with all due respect to Ambrose Bierce).  In fact, avoiding ambiguity and the litigation it sometimes causes is one of the fundamental goals of estate planning.  If you protect the relationships between your loved ones by making things easier down the road for your surviving family members (and anyone else involved with your estate), there are a few key points to keep in mind while you’re still in a position to do something about them.

Considering Our Relationship with Money and Wealth

Our relationship with money is a lot like our love relationships and this is especially true in the estate planning world. Having dealt with so many different people and families, it always strikes me how one person can be so different from the next with regard to money. For some, the topic of money and finances appears to be a relaxed and enjoyable one and for others it seems to be a stressful battle against scarcity.  Of course, there are varying degrees of these two extremes all along the spectrum.  What seems clear to me at this point is that money is a charged topic which engenders a vast array of emotions in the same way that our other relationships do.

The fact is, the Florida estate planning process is a kind of “ground zero” where relationships, love and money meet head on and sometimes collide.  Of course, estate planning is an act of love to plan for your loved ones and this process is specifically about what happens to your money and valuable assets when you no longer need them.  This is the essence of love and it is why I have the highest respect for folks who prioritize estate planning.

Often folks are aware of relationship issues with the people in their lives but are unaware of how the relationship with money affects themselves and others.  Our relationships also affect our health because healthy relationships promote good energy and and a relaxed stress level and unhealthy relationships can have the opposite impact.

For me, a healthy relationship with money, like all relationships, starts with awareness.  We all had a certain amount of conditioning in our formative years and this has influenced our thoughts and beliefs today.  Awareness is important because without it, we operate on a sort of auto-pilot concerning our finances and our other relationships.

Ideas for becoming more aware of our relationships?

  1. Talking to trusted coaches and therapists or reading their books
  2. Journaling
  3. Meditation
  4. Asking trusted friends and colleagues for honest feedback
  5. Getting okay with discovering the truth

The Importance of a Clear Unambiguous Plan

The first and foremost of the following important Florida estate planning tips for protecting relationships, is to prepare a comprehensive map for your loved ones to follow after you’re gone.  You don’t want them to have to improvise at the last minute, and you don’t want to leave your family in a position where they have to make guesses about what you might have wanted.

To establish a top-notch Florida estate plan plan, you first need to brainstorm about overall strategy.  What exactly are your trying to accomplish, and what are your priorities?  Do you want to use a will or rely on a Florida revocable living trust and other non-probate transfers in Florida such as using Florida TOD and POD accounts to avoid probate.  Or, will you adopt a hybrid approach that allows some assets to transfer through probate administration in Florida and others to stay out of probate?

Is your principle goal efficiency, simplicity, or cost-effectiveness?  Should you keep most of your wealth in its current form or shift it to other assets before transfer to the next generation?

Once you identify your goals and decide on a general approach, you need the right estate-planning documents in Florida if you have a Florida homestead or are a Florida resident.  where you are a resident to make it happen.

It’s easy enough to find a Florida last will template online these days—and virtual Florida estate planning with a Florida attorney assuredly can work for simpler estates.  But if your situation or estate is complex or out of the ordinary, a cookie-cutter form might not cut it.  A customized last will or trust in Florida takes more time and expense to prepare, but the front-end investment is more than worth it to have a high-quality document that eliminates future doubt and protects family harmony.

Of course, more often than not, a comprehensive estate plan includes more than just a will.  Advance healthcare directives in Florida—like the living wills, healthcare-surrogate designations, and Florida powers of attorney (“POA”)—all provide guidance to your family members if you ever reach a point where you can’t speak or act on your own behalf.  Living wills in Florida declare what kind of medical treatment you want—or do not want—if you become incapacitated.  A designation of healthcare surrogate empowers another person to make healthcare decisions for you if you’re ever not able to.  And a general POA grants another person authority to act on your behalf in financial matters.

Having clear advance directives prepared ahead of time saves your loved ones the time, money, and stress involved in seeking judicial appointments, if they ultimately prove necessary.  And, if a quick decision is needed in a future emergency, someone you trust will be empowered to make it.

Arrange Assets Effectively

A well-thought-out plan is necessary for a smooth, efficient estate, but it’s not sufficient in and of itself.  A critical part of Florida estate planning for protecting relationships, is taking action to start putting your well prepared plan into action.  For estate assets, that means arranging and, if necessary, re-titling real estate in Florida for eventual distribution.

Living trusts provide the most obvious example.  You can hire a razor-sharp lawyer to design a trust perfectly crafted for your estate, but if you don’t actually fund your Florida trust (that is, formally transfer assets to the trust), it won’t do you any good.  That’s because a Florida successor trustee doesn’t have authority to manage or distribute assets that do not legally belong to the trust.  So, if your trust will hold real estate, you need to record a deed transferring the property to the trust.  If titled personal property or financial accounts in Florida will be distributed through the trust, they must be re-titled in the trust’s name.  For property without a title, you can memorialize the transfer through a certificate of assignment or similar document.

Another important standout among the Florida estate planning tips for protecting relationships, is making sure that if your estate plan involves other non-probate transfers, as mentioned above, assets are correctly arranged to allow for the transfer.  If you want a bank account to transfer to a loved one through a POD designation, you need to actually direct the bank to put the POD designation on the account.  And the same idea applies to jointly owned assets slated to automatically transfer through a right of survivorship.

Personal property tends to get overlooked in estate planning because it often doesn’t have as much financial value as real estate, financial accounts, or securities.  But it does frequently have a lot of sentimental value, and that, too, can lead to relationship friction.  Wills usually don’t set forth line items for anything but the most valuable personal property, leaving executors to decide who gets what—and sometimes leaving heirs to fight about it.  You’d be surprised at just how often the kids bicker over who gets Grandma’s engagement ring or the piano she played at church (or maybe you wouldn’t).

Under Florida law, a testator can preempt this problem by incorporating a “personal property memorandum” within a Florida will.   A personal property memorandum lists individual items and identifies which heir will receive each.   The advantage is that you can continuously update the memo as personal property is obtained or transferred, without having to repeat all the formalities needed to amend a will.   A thorough personal property memorandum is a simple but effective tool to prevent infighting among surviving family members.

Skillfully Appointing Florida Estate Planning Roles

How estate planning can improve your relationships

A critical part of estate planning in Florida (or wherever you are) is about designating the most trustworthy individuals in your life to handle your financial and medical affairs in the event you can no longer do so. What many people don’t realize is that designating these key roles involves a high level of trust and respect for the relationship and this can be communicated during one’s lifetime.

When it comes to Florida estate planning tips for protecting relationships, key estate planning roles that relate to the key documents in Florida are the Florida durable power of attorney, the healthcare surrogate in Florida, the Florida personal representative and the Florida successor trustee.  

Naturally, people people feel honored when entrusted and respected and this process should be shared during the planning process. This alone can bring a new closeness and sense of value to these relationships.

In addition, planning ahead for trust and estate successors in Florida (or wherever you are) by communicating in advance about these key roles is an important part of preparing successors. 

Select the Right Fiduciaries

The most obvious of the Florida estate planning tips for protecting relationships may be selecting the right people for the right roles.  Relying on estate successors in Florida is an unavoidable component of estate planning for obvious reasons.  If you use a Florida last will, you’ll need a dependable executor a/k/a Personal Representative in Florida who’s up to the task.  If you create a trust—even if you’re the trustee initially—you’ll need a competent successor trustee waiting in the on-deck circle.  If you use a designation of healthcare surrogate or a durable power of attorney, it’s absolutely vital to pick someone who is capable of performing those duties, who makes good decisions under pressure, and who you can trust to act in your best interests and honor your wishes.

The alternative to choosing fiduciaries is to let a court choose them for you.  Judges generally try to appoint a family member or close friend—someone the judge thinks is close enough to have a reasonably good understanding of the situation.  But a judge doesn’t know your family like you do.  He or she won’t know which family members keep their heads in tough situations and which struggle under stress.  Or who’s scrupulously honest and who’s a little less particular.

Failing to name fiduciaries can be a recipe for family conflict.   An early quarrel over who serves as an estate’s personal representative can set the tone for a contentious administration process.  When you clearly establish exactly who will serve in which roles and who will have final decision-making authority in matters relating to the estate, you help nip in the bud the arguments that too frequently result in long-term family disharmony and wasteful, hard-feelings-inducing litigation.

Educating Fiduciaries and Family Members 

Discussing your intentions openly concerning “who gets what” assets is among the most helpful Florida estate planning tips for protecting relationships.

Distrbution of Estate Assets in Florida

As a bit of a refresher course, a definition of your assets in Florida, or elsewhere, is anything you own that has value.

Everyone who takes the steps to do estate planning, usually has ideas about where certain assets should be distributed upon their death and this can be for any number of reason ranging from closeness to the person to the needs of the beneficiary. When a person is able to communicate with their loved ones in advance as to why they are considering certain distributions, a new understanding and closeness can emerge.

The take away here is that there are MANY ways in which estate planning can foster a greater closeness and bonding in relationships and above a only a couple highlights. The key is to be proactive and perhaps brave in approaching discussions that may be uncomfortable because there is a huge opportunity in this process.

Speaking with fiduciaries and family members is one of the simplest things you can do to make an estate plan run smoothly.  But it can also be one of the most uncomfortable.  The idea is to have frank conversations with the people who will be involved in your estate—letting them know how your estate plan will work, what you are trying to accomplish, what is expected of each individual, and your wishes for after you’re gone.

It can be tempting to think that, once you have everything on paper, discussing your estate plan further is unnecessary.  However, legal documents are not always as clear and unambiguous to surviving family members as they are to the lawyers who draft them.  Trustees, executors, and beneficiaries may have questions about the intent behind certain provisions.  They may need more detail or elaboration to be certain they honor your wishes.

If possible, it’s a good idea to set up a family meeting and go over your estate plan with everyone in the same room.  With everyone together, you can discuss what you want to happen in different scenarios and open the floor to questions.  This approach reduces the risk of one family member doubting instructions provided to another verbally.  When it comes to something as important as last wishes, for example, a dispute over loved ones’ recollections can quickly blow up into a conflict that hurts the family for years.  And that’s precisely what we’re trying to avoid.

To close with a bit of encouragement, we all know that a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.  Planning ahead seems obvious, but it can be trickier and much more daunting  than it sounds and this can lead to procrastination with obvious consequences.   If, like most people, you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about wills, trusts, and estates, you might not anticipate potential issues in your situation—and you might not be familiar with the ins and outs of your state’s relevant laws.

Consulting with an experienced professional can be a huge help in creating the kind of estate planning discussed above.  An experienced estate planning attorney in Florida or wherever you reside can do more than simply draft documents, but create directions that unambiguously implement your objectives, while also providing valuable strategic advice about ways to proactively address potential trouble areas in order to protect the relationships that matter most to you.

Steve Gibbs, Esq.