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Don't repeat the mistakes of (well known) others

Your mother is dying of cancer. For a year you nurse her - back massages and sponge baths - right down to her final days. And then, after her passing you learn that, per her wishes, the estate will not be evenly divided; some of your siblings will get significantly more than you.

Such was the news Moon Zappa, daughter of experimental rock pioneer Frank Zappa, received after her mother's passing last October. Namely, Gail Zappa left a larger percentage of the Zappa estate, as well as control of the family business, to Moon's siblings Ahmet and Liza. Moon and her brother Dweezil - the two eldest children - got the short end of the (estate's) stick.

The family dynamic - close, but always a bit unconventional - deteriorated after Frank's death in 1993. Gail took over the estate and the problems began. She clashed with her children over money and rights to Frank's image and music. Since her death, the legal fallout - which originates from nothing more than poor estate planning -- has opened a rift among the siblings themselves. Dweezil found himself crossing swords with the Zappa estate over the content of his live shows and sale of merchandise. (His siblings informed him that his concert tour name, Zappa Plays Zappa, was in violation of trademark laws, and he was disallowed from continuing under that aegis.)

Learning The ABCs of estate planning from the Zappas

The Zappa situation illustrates the importance of careful estate planning. Many people spend more time planning a vacation or the landscaping their front yard than they do deciding who will inherit their estate. Yet an inadequately planned estate - or one not planned at all - means that you will surrender control of everything you own into the hands of others who may not act according to your wishes after your death.

Your estate includes real estate, bank accounts, stocks and other securities, life insurance policies, personal property, and digital assets. Since so much is involved and the laws can get complicated, an estate planning attorney can be of real help. A carefully executed estate plan will do the following:

  • Name those to whom your property will go after your death
  • Ensure that the transfer of property will go quickly and smoothly with as few legal snags as possible
  • Minimize and care for necessary taxes to be paid so the transfer of property will be easy for your loved ones
  • Avoid disputes and court battles among your family members after your death
  • Ensure the care of children who are not yet of legal age
  • Outline your funeral arrangements and wishes and how these are to be paid

It is more than just a will. An estate plan shields an estate from heavy taxes and arbitrary court decisions. Moreover, it helps to bypass the drama that has erupted in the Zappa family and so many other families. It is the best way to protect both property and people.

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