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Portriat of Chief Justice Burger with an American flag, eagle and Supreme Court as the background

Why should I avoid a DIY estate plan? Mistakes of Chief Justice Burger offer valuable lessons

by Legacy Plan
September 12, 2023

Embarking on the journey of estate planning is a crucial step to secure the future of your assets and safeguard the financial well-being of your loved ones far into the future. However, it is essential to understand why a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach may not be the wisest choice in the complex area of estate planning law. One significant reason to avoid a DIY estate plan is when the planner has a lack of specialized knowledge and expertise.

Even brilliant legal minds, like the late Chief Justice Warren Burger, make mistakes when venturing outside their area of expertise. The case involving Burger, who died in 1995, serves as an important reminder that estate planning requires specific skills and an understanding of intricate legal provisions and tax implications.

Furthermore, crafting an effective estate plan involves considering various factors such as inheritance, probate and asset distribution. A skilled estate planning professional possesses in-depth knowledge regarding these intricate matters and can provide valuable guidance tailored to your unique circumstances.

In addition to expert knowledge, an attorney experienced in estate planning can ensure that your will contains clear instructions for the distribution of assets upon your passing. This is crucial because ambiguity or vagueness in a will can lead to confusion among heirs and potentially result in lengthy legal battles over inheritances. A professionally drafted estate plan leaves little room for interpretation so that your wishes are carried out precisely as intended.

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While it may be tempting to venture into DIY territory when creating an estate plan, Burger's mistakes serve as a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls involved. Opting for professional guidance ensures that you receive expert advice, comprehensive documentation and peace of mind knowing that your estate plan is legally sound, maximizing benefits while minimizing the risk of errors or disputes.

But Burger, despite his legal prowess, made a grave mistake when he decided to draft his own will. His will, consisting of a mere 176 words, fell short of the comprehensive provisions necessary for proper estate planning. Burger's decision to draft his own will without expert guidance led to numerous problems after his passing.

The brevity of the document did not allow for clear instructions regarding the distribution of his assets. As a result, confusion and disputes arose among his heirs over how to divide the inheritance.

This oversight could have been avoided had Burger sought professional advice from an experienced estate planner who could have guided crafting a more detailed and precise will. One significant issue stemming from Burger's DIY approach was the failure to consider estate taxes.

Burger had an estate worth approximately $1.8 million at the time of his death, and his estate was liable for estate tax payments amounting to over $450,000. Unfortunately, Burger's lack of expertise in this area led him astray from taking advantage of tax-saving opportunities that could have significantly reduced or even eliminated this burden. In addition to overlooking crucial aspects such as asset distribution and tax planning, Burger neglected to consider how probate would affect his estate upon his passing.

Why avoid probate?

person carrying a big boulder labeled probate up some steps to an open door

Probate is a legal process that validates a will or determines a distribution plan and ensures that assets are distributed according to its court-supervised terms. Without proper provisions in place, assets subject to probate can be tied up in court proceedings for extended periods — delaying inheritance and exposing them to potential public scrutiny.

By neglecting this aspect in his self-drafted will, Burger inadvertently placed unnecessary burdens on his heirs, subjecting them to time-consuming and costly legal processes that could have been avoided with the help of a professional. Burger's case serves as a stark reminder that even brilliant individuals with extensive knowledge in their respective fields can make crucial mistakes when venturing into unfamiliar territory.

How can I avoid probate?

One effective way to avoid probate is by establishing beneficiary designations on financial accounts and insurance policies. By naming specific beneficiaries who will inherit these assets directly upon your passing, they can bypass the probate process altogether.

This approach applies to retirement accounts such as IRAs or 401(k)s, life insurance policies and other financial accounts with designated beneficiaries. Ensuring that these designations are up to date and accurately reflect your wishes is crucial in avoiding unnecessary delays and complications for your heirs.

Another strategy to avoid probate is by setting up living trusts or revocable trusts. These trusts allow you to transfer ownership of your assets into the trust during your lifetime while still maintaining control over them as the trustee.

Upon your passing or incapacity, the trust provisions come into effect, dictating how these assets should be managed or distributed among your beneficiaries. Since trust assets are no longer considered part of an individual's estate at death, they bypass probate entirely.

This not only saves time but also provides privacy as trust documents are generally not public record. It's important to note that not all assets need to go through probate even without establishing living trusts or beneficiary designations.

Assets held jointly with rights of survivorship automatically pass to the surviving owner outside of probate proceedings. Additionally, certain states offer simplified procedures for smaller estates that fall below specific value thresholds.

One of the main concerns with probate is its time-consuming nature. The process typically involves several steps such as filing the will with the court, notifying creditors and beneficiaries, appraising assets, paying debts and taxes, and ultimately distributing the remaining property.

This can take months or even years before all matters are resolved. Without any provisions to avoid probate, Burger's estate likely experienced delays in asset distribution that could have been minimized with proper estate planning.

Another aspect worth considering is the public nature of probate proceedings. When a will goes through this legal process, it becomes a matter of public record accessible by anyone interested in obtaining information about the deceased person's assets and how they were distributed.

For public figures like Burger who valued their privacy during their lifetime, this lack of confidentiality might not align with their intentions or preferences. With sufficient estate planning measures in place to avoid probate or limit its scope regarding certain assets or details of distribution, individuals can better safeguard their privacy even after death.

Additionally, it is crucial to recognize that probate can also result in significant costs such as attorney fees and court expenses. The fees associated with navigating through probate proceedings can be substantial depending on factors such as the complexity of the estate or potential disputes among beneficiaries or creditors.

What if my will lacks clear instructions?

One of the most critical aspects of estate planning is ensuring that your will contains clear instructions. Without clear instructions in your will, the distribution of your assets may be left to interpretation or even subject to disputes among your heirs. This lack of clarity can lead to confusion and delays in the probate process, potentially leaving your loved ones without access to their rightful inheritance for an extended period.

Moreover, if your will does not provide explicit directions regarding the distribution of specific assets or accounts, it may result in unintended consequences. For instance, if you fail to mention how certain bank accounts or investment portfolios should be divided among beneficiaries or if you omit any mention of digital assets such as cryptocurrencies or online accounts altogether, these assets may end up being disregarded or distributed incorrectly.

In Burger's case, the lack of specificity in his will led to confusion and complications among his heirs. The absence of clear instructions meant that certain assets were subject to interpretation, resulting in disagreements and potential legal battles.

Without a well-crafted estate plan that provides explicit guidelines for asset distribution, one's loved ones may face unnecessary stress and conflict during an already difficult time. Moreover, a properly structured estate plan should account for all types of assets, including financial accounts, real estate, personal belongings and investments.

Each asset should be carefully considered with regard to its value and sentimental significance when determining how it should be distributed among beneficiaries. By leaving no asset unaddressed or unspecified in an estate plan, individuals can ensure that none of their hard-earned or cherished possessions are overlooked or disputed upon their passing.

The significance of clear directions within an estate plan extends beyond merely specifying who receives what; it also encompasses considerations such as age requirements or conditions attached to distributions. For instance, if there are young beneficiaries involved or concerns about their financial maturity at the time of inheritance, establishing trusts with appropriate provisions can safeguard their interests until they reach a more responsible age.

Estate planning mistakes often occur when individuals fail to recognize the importance of providing detailed instructions within their wills and other related documents. By addressing all assets comprehensively and providing precise instructions for distribution within an intelligently crafted estate plan, individuals can minimize uncertainties surrounding inheritance matters while simultaneously offering clarity and peace of mind to their loved ones.

How to minimize estate taxes

a pen on top of a document package labeled wealth preservation and estate planning

One of the most critical aspects of estate planning for celebrities is finding strategies to minimize estate taxes. As mentioned, Burger's $1.8 million estate ended up subject to over $450,000 in estate taxes due to his failure to adopt effective tax-saving measures.

However, by implementing proper estate planning techniques, individuals can significantly reduce or even eliminate this tax burden.

A widely used technique to minimize estate taxes is establishing a trust. By creating various types of trusts such as revocable living trusts or irrevocable life insurance trusts (ILITs), celebrities can effectively transfer their assets while minimizing tax liabilities. For instance, a revocable living trust allows the celebrity to maintain control over their assets during their lifetime and specify how they should be distributed after their passing.

This approach enables the heirs to avoid probate and its associated costs while potentially reducing the overall taxable value of the estate. Another strategy is making use of annual gift allowances provided by tax laws.

Celebrities can take advantage of these allowances by gifting a certain amount each year to their loved ones without incurring any gift tax consequences. By utilizing this method consistently over time, significant portions of an individual's wealth can be transferred outside the taxable estate.

Additionally, proper consideration should be given to retirement accounts and life insurance policies when crafting an estate plan. These assets often constitute a substantial portion of a celebrity's wealth and are subject to both income taxes and potential estate taxes upon death if not structured correctly.

By implementing specific strategies such as beneficiary designations or utilizing special types of trusts designed for these assets, celebrities can minimize both income and estate tax burdens on these valuable holdings. Minimizing estate taxes is an essential consideration for celebrities when engaging in comprehensive estate planning.

Through techniques such as establishing trusts, leveraging annual gift allowances and strategizing with retirement accounts and life insurance policies, individuals can take proactive steps toward preserving their wealth for future generations while minimizing the impact of taxes on their estates.

By failing to address these key components in his will, Burger missed out on opportunities to leverage exemptions and deductions available within the tax code. For instance, he could have explored establishing a marital trust or qualified terminable interest property (QTIP) trust for his spouse, which would have allowed for significant estate tax savings by deferring taxes until her passing.

Additionally, he could have allocated a portion of his assets toward philanthropic goals through charitable trusts or foundations, thereby reducing both income and estate taxes while leaving a lasting legacy. It is crucial to note that proper estate planning goes beyond simply drafting a will; it requires careful consideration of all available options to mitigate potential tax liabilities.

How can trust provisions preserve assets?

When it comes to preserving assets and ensuring their proper distribution, trust provisions are an essential component of a well-crafted estate plan. A trust is a legal entity that holds assets on behalf of beneficiaries, allowing for greater control, flexibility, and protection. By utilizing various types of trusts, individuals can safeguard their assets from estate taxes, provide for specific needs or circumstances and maintain privacy.

One common type of trust frequently used in estate planning is the revocable living trust. This trust allows the grantor (the person creating the trust) to retain control over their assets during their lifetime while specifying detailed instructions for their distribution upon death.

Unlike a will subject to probate court proceedings, a revocable living trust bypasses this process entirely and ensures that assets are distributed according to the grantor's wishes without unnecessary delay or public scrutiny. Another type of trust that can be employed is an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT).

Celebrities often have substantial life insurance policies in place to protect their loved ones financially. By placing these policies within an ILIT, the proceeds can be shielded from estate taxes upon the celebrity's death.

This allows heirs to receive the full value of the life insurance policy without having to allocate a significant portion toward covering estate tax liabilities. Moreover, certain celebrities may have complex financial situations with multiple income streams and valuable intellectual property rights.

Burger's failure to establish trusts within his estate plan proved to be a significant oversight with far-reaching consequences. By neglecting to utilize trusts, Burger inadvertently exposed his estate to unnecessary risks and missed out on opportunities for effective wealth management. First and foremost, trusts serve as a means of safeguarding assets for the benefit of beneficiaries.

Celebrities and individuals with sizable estates should take note of this lesson from Burger's mistakes. By partnering with experienced professionals who specialize in estate planning, they can ensure their assets are protected, their intentions are clearly defined, and their heirs are well-positioned to inherit their legacies while minimizing potential tax liabilities.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at

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