What Not to Include in Your Estate Planning Documents

One important purpose of estate planning is to facilitate the transfer of ownership of your money and property to your family and loved ones when you pass away. For this transfer to be as stress-free and efficient as possible, it is crucial that estate planning documents be thorough and provide the necessary information. Nevertheless, there is some information that should never be included in your estate planning documents.


Social Security Numbers

You may think that it would make sense to refer to yourself and your family members or loved ones by using their Social Security numbers to ensure that they are correctly identified when the time comes. It is important to provide information in your estate planning documents that is sufficient to properly identify your beneficiaries, but using full legal names, including middle name or initial, is typically adequate. Providing Social Security numbers would leave the individual vulnerable to the risk of identity theft because there are several estate planning documents that may become part of the public record. A will may need to be filed with the probate court at your death, or a power of attorney or certificate of trust may need to be recorded if real estate is transferred. Once these documents are part of the public record, strangers will have access to this private information by making a simple request of the probate court or recording office and paying a small fee. Considering that in 2022 alone, the Federal Trade Commission received 1.1 million reports of identity theft,[1] Social Security numbers should never be included in anyone’s estate plan.


Keep in mind, however, that you may need to provide your family members’ Social Security numbers when you designate them as beneficiaries of your retirement or other accounts, but those forms never become part of the public record and therefore are not as vulnerable.


Disparaging Remarks

Many people have difficult family relationships. It may be tempting for a person to state in their estate plan all their pent up frustrations, their desire for revenge unanswerable by the living victim, or their desires for spite past the grave.[2] The 1912 book Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills[3] mentions the following barbed bequest included in the will of Philip, Fifth Earl of Pembroke, who died in 1669: “I give nothing to my Lord Saye, and I do make him this legacy willingly, because I know that he will faithfully distribute it unto the poor.”


Some may think that their estate plan is a means by which they can have the last word, so to speak, in a contentious relationship. However, a few courts have held an estate or the executor of an estate liable for testamentary libel, that is, publishing a false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation in a will. For example, in the 1914 case Harris v. Nashville Trust Co.,[4] the plaintiff’s uncle included the following in a codicil to his will: “And this sum of two hundred and fifty (250) Dollars to John Woodfin, $1.00 to William Woodfin, and $1.00 to Cleo Woodfin, the illegitimate children of my brother James Woodfin, is all that they are ever to have of my estate.” At that time, illegitimacy was viewed very negatively, so Cleo filed suit against the executor of the estate for damages, alleging that she was the legitimate child of her parents and that the codicil had been maliciously added to the will to “blacken her character.” Although the executor claimed that no cause of action existed against the executor, the court disagreed and allowed the case to proceed. So it is prudent to use your estate plan as a means of blessing those you love instead of blasting those you dislike.


We Can Help

As experienced estate planning attorneys, we will make sure that the information necessary to achieve your wishes is included in your estate planning documents and that anything that would risk damage to your estate and ultimately, your beneficiaries, is excluded. Call us today to set up an appointment so you can look forward to gaining the peace of mind that comes with knowing you have put a plan in place that protects you and your loved ones.

[1] New FTC Data Show Consumers Reported Losing Nearly $8.8 Billion to Scams in 2022, Fed. Trade Comm’n (Feb. 23, 2023), https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2023/02/new-ftc-data-show-consumers-reported-losing-nearly-88-billion-scams-2022.

[2] In re Croker’s Will, 105 N.Y.S. 190, 191 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1951).

[3] Virgil M. Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills 290, https://archive.org/stream/ancientcuriousfa00harrrich/ancientcuriousfa00harrrich_djvu.txt.

[4] 162 S.W. 584 (Tenn. 1918).

Posted in: Estate Planning