No one can divine what will happen in the future, but professionals should be able to map out a plan that accounts for nearly every possibility.
Failure to communicate
Any estate plan of any size can go catastrophically wrong -- particularly if no one knows you've taken steps to leave something for heirs.
"We had a client whose father had a massive stroke. His kids swooped down into the town he was in, divided up all of his furniture and brought Dad back to a nursing home here in Atlanta. They didn't bother to look through any of his papers or anything else and closed down his bank account, closed down his mail and just shut everything down," says Scroggin.
Following the father's death months later, the client and siblings went through their father's papers and found a life insurance policy worth $1 million. Their first incredulous question was, "Is this worth anything?"
"We checked on it, and it had been. Dad was having his account debited every month to pay for the life insurance, and when the payment stopped because the bank account got closed, the insurance company sent a letter to the address they had. The letter got returned because there was no forwarding on the address, and they lost a million dollars," Scroggin says.
Trying to please everyone
Even if all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed, things can still go badly. Often, it's the little things that permanently derail plans and family relationships.
Items of sentimental value can cause serious rifts among the bereaved. Experienced estate planners recommend that the person doing the planning -- known as the testator -- communicate with heirs ahead of time to spell out what everyone will get when they die and how they can come to equitable agreements on cherished objects.
"I had two brothers one day shouting at each other in their mother's kitchen about a yellow Tweety Bird figurine that had sat in the kitchen for 50 years. And I'm going, 'Guys, I'll buy one on eBay, and I won't tell you which is the original because it is only going to cost a buck-fifty,'" says Scroggin.
Larger bequests, of course, are fraught with rivalry and envy as well. It's not at all uncommon for heirs to waste the entire value of the estate fighting over what someone else inherited. At that point, the estate and the family relationships are gone.
"It's a double-edged sword; people don't want to communicate what property is going to be given because it could cause animosity. It may cause animosity now, but you can deal with it. Later on, you have no control of it because you are gone," says attorney Senen Garcia, founder of SG Law Group in Coconut Grove, Fla.
Talking about death and dying is not something that comes naturally to most families. But communicating your plans and the intentions behind them could prevent estate planning mistakes and save everyone heartache and money.