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7 Fatal Estate Planning Mistakes From Game Of Thrones 

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Steve Pomeranz, Game of Thrones, Estate Planning

You can find good financial advice in some of the most unlikely places. For instance, the storylines of the popular HBO series, Game of Thrones, contain some excellent tips for good estate planning. For openers, the ongoing fatalities of major characters are a stark reminder of the possibility of sudden, unexpected mortality and, therefore, the need to make plans for your heirs.

Today, let’s take a look at seven important estate planning lessons we can glean from Game of Thrones.  I’d also like to take a moment to warn those who haven’t seen the show and are planning to, there are some spoilers ahead.  So, if you’d like to fast forward or come back in 5 minutes, please do so now.

Lesson One – Determine Your Assets

Step one in estate planning is finding out and properly recording exactly what your estate consists of. You may well have more than you think. On Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen (Da-NER-us Tar-GAIR-ean) was never flush with cash but, nonetheless, held considerable assets. Don’t forget to include things like jewelry and collectibles along with bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts, insurance policies, and, of course, real estate.

In addition to making a list of all your assets and getting a total, it’s also a good idea to assess your net worth at the same time. So, after you’ve created an inventory of your assets, subtract from the total your liabilities, such as mortgages, personal loans, and any other outstanding debt.

Lesson Two – Don’t Write Your Will Without Professional Help

Prepare your will with the help of legal professionals. It’s fine to write out the basics of how you want your estate divided among your beneficiaries but have your will drafted by an attorney. A simple mistake in wording or leaving something out,  any one of a number of easy-to-make errors could derail your estate plan and thwart your wishes. That’s what happened when Game of Throne’s Robert Baratheon (Bar-A-the-on) decided to go with a “do it yourself” will, and the result set off a struggle for succession that led to the deaths of thousands.

In preparing your estate plan, consider setting up trusts for your children. In Game of Thrones, Ned Stark’s daughters, Sansa (SANza) and Arya (Aria), suffered significantly from his failure to secure their financial future with a trust. Trusts have several advantages over wills, starting with the fact that they avoid the probate process that can significantly delay your heirs getting possession of your assets and thereby cause financial problems for them. Trusts can also provide protection from creditors, reduce estate taxes, and administer assets for a minor without the hassle of court oversight. As a financial advisor, I also advise clients to name a successor trustee to handle things in case the original trustee dies.

Lesson Three – Watch Out For Blended Families

The traditional family structure is becoming increasingly rare. Even the meaning of the word “family” is somewhat questionable these days. It’s much more common to see blended families, characterized by multiple spouses or partners and an array of respective children and stepchildren. It’s often the case that a number of “family” members have little association, or even contact, with one another. The complex blended families in Westeros (WEST-er-oce) are a good example of this: Ned Starks had five children with his wife, along with a “bastard” son and an “adopted” son.

The complex nature of modern families is another good reason to have your estate planning documents all carefully drafted by a professional.

Lesson Four – Be Sure To Do What You Want With Your Estate Plan

Lord Tywin (TIE-win) Lannister’s determination to keep his son from inheriting Casterly Rock precipitated a mass of chaos in season five of Game of Thrones. But don’t let that storyline deter you from creating your own individual estate plan. Your estate is yours to dispose of as you wish. Don’t feel like you have to follow some set template for the handling of your assets after your death. Again, consult with your attorney, clearly explaining to them what your wishes are, and they should be able to prepare all the necessary legal documents to make sure that your estate’s assets go exactly where you want them to.

Lesson Five – It’s Sometimes Harder To Manage Wealth Than It Is To Amass It

People are often so focused on making money that they ignore potential problems that can erode it much more quickly than they made it. Some of the biggest risks can occur during times of wealth transfer, such as the disposition of your estate. In Game of Thrones, Daenerys (Da-NER-us) is learning this lesson as she struggles to rule the city of Meereen. Sometimes, management is tougher than conquest. In the context of estate planning, reducing tax liabilities for your heirs is one of the most important points to address and yet another good reason to consult with a financial advisor or tax attorney. Don’t become like GOT’s Robert Baratheon, who had the major character flaw of failing to listen to good advice.

Lesson Six – Be Careful To Avoid Undue Influence

The flip side of making sure you get good advice in your estate planning is making sure that you don’t take bad advice. As we age, our sound decision-making ability—and our natural BS detector—sometimes fade a bit. The noble plans of some of the characters in Game of Thrones have often been thwarted by allowing a nefarious advisor to unduly influence them. What’s the solution?  In addition to the professional assistance you get in preparing your estate plan, have a trusted family member or friend, someone who knows you really well, review your estate plan and get their feedback on how well they think it represents your true wishes.

Lesson Seven – Keep Your Estate Plan Up To Date

Once you’ve got your estate plan initially prepared, it’s important to periodically review it and make any necessary changes. You probably won’t have to contend with a frozen zombie invasion as in Game of Thrones, but your estate plan can certainly be impacted by unexpected events, such as changes in the law, changes in your assets, divorce, or the death of a family member. An estate plan you craft at age 40 may need considerable revision by the time you’re 80.

Estate planning is an essential part of your overall financial planning. You don’t want your estate, which you spent a lifetime creating, unnecessarily eroded by taxes, tied up in probate court, or not going to who you want it to. Take a lesson from Game of Thrones and carefully plan ahead because you never know what the next season of your life may bring.

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