What Not to Include in Your Estate Planning Documents

Estate planning is an important process that addresses care of you and your assets during time that you may be incapacitated, and facilitates the transfer of ownership of your assets to your family and loved ones when you pass away. For this transfer to be as stress-free and efficient as possible, it is crucial that estate planning documents be thorough and provide the necessary information. However, there is some information that should never be included in your estate planning documents.

Social Security Numbers
You might think that it would be helpful to include Social Security numbers to help to correctly identify you and your family members or loved ones. While it is important to provide information in your estate planning documents that is sufficient to properly identify the parties involved, using full legal names, including middle name or initial, is typically adequate. Providing Social Security numbers could leave the individuals identified vulnerable to the risk of identity theft because some of the estate planning documents in your estate plan may become part of the public record. A will may need to be filed with the probate court at your death, or a power of attorney or certificate of trust may need to be recorded if real estate is transferred. Once these documents are part of the public record, complete strangers will have access to the information included by making a simple request of the probate court or recording office and paying a small fee.

You may need to provide your family members’ Social Security numbers when you designate them as beneficiaries of your retirement assets, life insurance, or other accounts, but those forms never become part of the public record and therefore are not as vulnerable to identity thieves.

Account Numbers
Account numbers could also be accessed by unauthorized people if those numbers are listed in your estate plan and become part of the public record and then could be used to steal money from your accounts. It is important to keep your account numbers in a secure location rather than including them in your will or trust. If you wish to identify a specific account in your estate plan, you should identify the account in a way that does not include the full account number in the document. For example if you wish to leave your Fidelity investment account to a specific beneficiary, you could identify the account as “my Fidelity account number xxx1234”, including only part of the account number. You also should be cautious about making account numbers readily available to family members other than those you have designated to act as your agent under a power of attorney, guardian, trustee, or a similar role that imposes a duty on them to act in the best interests of both you and your future beneficiaries.

Think carefully about who you choose to act in these roles because they will have access to important financial information. While a family member may often be the best choice, sometimes even family members prove to be untrustworthy.

Rather than including account numbers in your estate plan, you should protect yourself by taking steps to avoid the disclosure of account numbers and other financial information except to someone you trust and have legally designated to act on your behalf.

Specific Funeral Instructions
You may have specific preferences for your funeral arrangements, but including these instructions in your estate planning documents is not advisable. Funerals are typically time-sensitive events, and your loved ones may not have immediate access to your estate planning documents. Instead, it is recommended to share your funeral wishes with your family or trusted loved ones in a separate document, such as a Remembrance and Services Memorandum, or through a conversation, ensuring your wishes are respected without any delays.

Conditions on Inheritances
While it’s understandable to have specific desires or concerns regarding how your assets are distributed, imposing excessive conditions on inheritances can lead to unintended consequences and potential disputes among your beneficiaries. Overly restrictive conditions may not align with the beneficiary’s needs or circumstances, creating unnecessary conflicts. Instead, focus on clearly articulating your intentions and goals while allowing your beneficiaries the flexibility to manage their inheritance responsibly.

Personal Messages or Letters of Explanation
Although it may be tempting to include personal messages or letters of explanation within your estate planning documents, it is generally advised against. These provisions may not be legally binding and can potentially confuse or complicate the administration process. Instead, consider leaving these messages or explanations outside of the legal documents. You could write separate letters to your loved ones, expressing your thoughts, values, and wishes. This approach allows you to communicate your sentiments while ensuring the legal clarity of your estate planning documents.

Disparaging Remarks
Many people have difficult family relationships. It may be tempting to express disappointments and frustrations. Some may think that their will or trust is a means by which they can have the last word in a contentious relationship. However, including such remarks in the will or trust can lead to confusion and litigation and cause increased difficulties in the administration of the estate. So it is prudent to call upon the better angels of your nature and use your estate plan as a means of blessing those you love instead of blasting those you dislike.

Let Us Help
Schedule time with us and let us help you create an estate plan that is comprehensive, legally sound, and aligned with your specific circumstances. We will make sure that the information necessary to achieve your wishes is included in your estate planning documents and that anything that would risk damage to your estate and ultimately, your beneficiaries, is excluded.