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How these 3 estate planning mistakes open the door to family disputes

Nobody wants their family members to squabble over inheritances after they're gone. No one wants to leave a legacy of heated battles. One of the main goals of estate planning is to prevent such disputes from happening.

It's your property, your wishes, your decision of what to leave to whom. Yet without a well-crafted estate plan, those decisions might instead end up in the hands of a judge. Legal battles over your estate plan can not only tear your family apart; they can also drain the resources from your estate.

Three mistakes in particular can make your plans vulnerable to attack.

1. Not making your intentions clear

Your will, trust and other estate planning documents should clearly spell out your intentions. They should anticipate possible contingencies and outline your desires should your "plan A" become infeasible.

Gray areas and unforeseen circumstances may open up your estate to disputes, especially if:

  • -You're excluding someone who would expect to inherit.
  • -You have a blended family with children from multiple marriages.
  • -You're setting conditions on someone's inheritance.

The more complex your situation, the more detailed and well-thought-out your estate planning documents should be.

2. Not choosing your executor and trustees carefully

Who will be responsible for administering your estate and carrying out your wishes after you're gone? This decision is just as important as deciding who will inherit what. By leaving your estate in the hands of someone who isn't competent to do the job - or who might challenge or misinterpret your wishes - you run the risk of your plans coming to shambles.

3. Not having a living will

Remember the tragic Terri Schiavo case of the 1990s? Comatose, unable to speak for herself and without a living will, Ms. Schiavo was left in limbo as her husband and parents fought a decade-long legal battle over whether to remove her feeding tube.

Through a living will, you can specify your wishes regarding life-sustaining treatments and end-of-life care, avoiding such disputes. You can also designate a health care surrogate - a trusted person empowered to make health care decisions on your behalf in the event that you become incapacitated.

The best thing you can do

These are just a handful of common issues that can lead to probate disputes. Countless others can also set your family up for a bitter battle.

The best way to avoid such discord is to consult with an attorney about your unique situation. A knowledgeable lawyer can help you identify potential problems and strategize ways to overcome them.

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