How can you make clients’ estate plans “foolproof”?

Advisers helping clients with estate planning may need to consider more than they bargained for, with funeral plots, what to do with their bodies, and even what how their pets should be treated after they pass all causing headaches when inadequately considered.

Australian Unity Trustees general manager, Emma Sakellaris, told a media roundtable yesterday that advisers often asked the organisation how to make sure a will or estate plan was foolproof, and that doing so in reality was very difficult.

Advisers would need to consider that the burial rites specified by a client, if indeed they even were, weren’t binding for example, with the executor or major beneficiary of a will often having the power to veto them.

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They also needed to ensure that their clients reconsidered their estate plans to reflect major life events – should they have a separation for example, they could want to change what was left to their previous spouse – and that they made them early enough for enduring powers of attorney to be established before they were required.

“You want to be able to choose how your life stages play out,” Sakellaris said, noting that in addition to losing that, unclear burial rites and estate plans often lead to angst and potential breakdown for remaining family members.

More than angst, poor planning could lead to expensive litigation. There were around 40 cases regarding burial processes reach the courts in the last three years, with Australian Unity Trustees national manager of estate planning, Anna Hacker, saying that there were hundreds more that had been mediated or acted on before getting that far.

“Those that have gone to the courts are just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Concernedly, there was very little that individuals can do to ensure their post-death wishes were executed as they wanted, which most clients (or even advisers) weren’t aware of. Hacker said she’s seeing increasing numbers of funeral plots sold for profit after the owners’ death or loss of capacity, for example.

Indeed, the only means of truly ensuring your wishes are followed after your death would be through a funeral bond, due to the fact it’s, according to Sakellaris, “a sunk asset”.

Advisers could still seek to set clients on the right track, however. Sakellaris said that appointing a trustee company was vital, as it would both last forever and add an impartial element to the process. Hacker said that her first step would be to put her burial wishes in a will, then tell family members.

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