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Don't drop the ball when planning your estate

People work hard throughout their lives to provide for their families, but many make serious errors in planning — or simply fail to plan — when it comes to passing their wealth to heirs after they die.

To that point, studies show that many Americans old enough to need estate planning have done absolutely nothing about it. This lapse is, of course, the most fundamental error you can make in estate planning.

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Matt Brown | Angels Baseball LP | Getty Images

Here are five of the most common estate-planning mistakes that can jeopardize your potential for leaving bequests in line with your desires:

1. Not having a will. A 2016 survey by Harris Poll for Rocket Lawyer found that 64 percent of American adults don't have a will. Nearly half of these people either said they didn't need one or just haven't gotten around to it.

Depending on what state you live in and your personal situation, failure to have a will can deliver assets to people other than those you intend. Moreover, the special needs of loved ones that you're concerned about may not be addressed. The point of a will is to document your wishes.

2. Failing to update your will. Among those who have a will, this is extremely common. All too often, people act as though their wills are set-it-and-forget-it documents that never need to be changed — even though their lives change. Let's say that when you make your will, you leave everything to your spouse, confident that he or she will eventually bequeath what's left of your estate to the children you've had together.

Years later you get divorced but neglect to update your will. As a result, depending on the wording in the document and the state you live in, your estate may not go to your children from your first marriage, who by this time may be grown and have children of their own (who might be deserving beneficiaries themselves).

If you remarry and have more children, the estate division gets even more complicated. As your life circumstances change, your will should, too. A good rule of thumb is to review your will every two years. Take it out of the file and read it carefully.

"Plenty of websites can set you up with a will, but these 'do-it-yourself' tools have myriad limitations. And, of course, you might never know if something's wrong with planning by this means — but your heirs eventually may."

3. Failure to be realistic about your heirs. When you make your will, consider whether your heirs have the financial and emotional capacity to handle the money responsibly. They may be spendthrifts, lack financial knowledge or could have an asset-consuming issue, such as a drug problem or gambling addiction.

Accordingly, you may want to make provisions in your will to protect them from their own worst tendencies by appointing a professional to supervise these assets. Sometimes these tendencies aren't apparent when you first draft your will but become clear down the road.

4. Overlooking the need for a trust. Wills only account for divisions of assets upon death, but trusts go on for a set period, usually governing the distribution of assets. Trusts enable restrictions on the timing of asset distribution and conditions for heirs to receive bequests — such as keeping bequests under the supervision of a preappointed trustee until a minor heir turns 18. Often, a simple will can pour into a basic trust to address issues related to the fitness of heirs to handle bequests.

5. Choosing the wrong executor or trustee. In their wills, many people appoint a relative or old friend, but these people may be your contemporaries and thus may not outlive you. Beyond that, they may not have the time or willingness to handle the responsibilities of executorship.

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Sometimes appointing even well-meaning relatives or family friends increases the likelihood of friction between heirs. Instead, consider a professional executor or trustee. This adds professionalism and reduces the chances of rancor.

So what can you do if you haven't gotten started on an estate plan? Plenty of websites can set you up with a will, but these "do-it-yourself" tools have myriad limitations. And, of course, you might never know if something's wrong with planning by this means — but your heirs eventually may.

That's why it makes sense to hire an experienced estate attorney in your area to draft your will and help you update it periodically. Some people chafe at having to spend a few thousand dollars for this service, but this expense is worth it, considering the value of assets that may be misdirected without a solid will.

Yes, it will cost more than software or web services. But given how important it is to get this right, this can easily be worth the money.

— By Trey Smith, private financial advisor, SunTrust Investment Services