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Learning from other people's estate planning mistakes

Creating wills and trusts or making an estate plan can be a complicated task. Fortunately, you can always turn to an estate planning attorney to help you put your wishes down on paper in a way that moves you toward your goals. However, people sometimes fail to make plans, or the plans they do make are fatally flawed.

By looking at examples of mistakes others have made, we can learn what not to do and use their situations to better anticipate problems. Here are a few lessons that can be learned from the mistakes of the wealthy and famous:

Don't go without proper estate planning documents. This was a mistake committed by both Princess Diana and Jimi Hendrix. Diana left what she called a "letter of wishes" granting some personal belongings to her godchildren, but the intended recipients received very little because she gave her executors discretion to give away the belongings. Hendrix, on the other hand, left no will and it resulted in his father obtaining all the future proceeds of his estate while the rest of his family received nothing.

Don't do it yourself. Estate planning can be complicated, so even if you think you know what you are doing, you may be better off getting some help. Former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger thought he could write his own will, but even he made mistakes and it cost his family more than $400,000 in taxes he might have avoided.

Don't let your documents become lost. The consequence of losing a will is essentially the same as destroying or revoking your will. In the case of Florence Griffith Joyner, her original will could not be found, so her estate passed through the probate court and the situation resulted in years of legal disputes.

Don't be casual with your appointment of executors. The job of executor of an estate can be difficult, make sure the person you choose is up to it. In the case of heiress Doris Duke, she had appointed her butler to manager her estate and charitable foundation, which led to challenges based on his competency to function in that role.

These are just a few examples of mistakes made by celebrities in their estate planning. The good news is that an experienced estate planning attorney can help you avoid these, and other common problems and pitfalls.

Source: Forbes.com, Estate Mistakes: Where Heath Ledger and Princess Di Went Wrong, Ashlea Ebeling

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