Ebony Howard is a certified public accountant and a QuickBooks ProAdvisor tax expert. She has been in the accounting, audit, and tax profession for more than 13 years, working with individuals and a variety of companies in the health care, banking, and accounting industries.
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Sixty-seven percent of Americans have no estate plan, according to a survey released this year by the senior-living referral service Caring.com. Among the reasons given are procrastination, and that respondents don’t think they own enough assets to warrant an estate plan, think that getting one is too costly, or don’t know how to get a will done.
Yet, there’s a whole publishing sub-industry that addresses those very questions. We begin our list with the best overall book, a cautionary tale that reveals how even the ultra-wealthy shun estate-planning tasks—at their peril. In Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe, the authors lay out how the storied Vanderbilt family built their enormous wealth and saw it evaporate over generations, due to reckless spending and zero planning for tomorrow. Closer to the ground is Estate Planning 101: From Avoidable Probate and Assessing Assets to Establishing Directives and Understanding Taxes, Your Essential Primer to Estate Planning, by Vicki Cook and Amy Blacklock, who spell out the A-to-Zs of taking care of your future. Stand Up to Elder Financial Abuse, by John Rotondi, educates you on the growing problem of seniors being targeted and scammed out of their savings and income—a book that everyone, regardless of their age, needs to read.
Best Overall: Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty
“Nobody can make money disappear like a Vanderbilt,” write Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe in Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, about the family that was once among the wealthiest in the United States, before squandering its fortune across the generations.
Estate planning certainly was not on the Vanderbilt family’s radar. The illustrious family first gained prominence during the Gilded Age with the money-hungry Cornelius Vanderbilt at the helm. Cornelius Vanderbilt, also known as the Commodore, became the richest man in America thanks to shipping and railroad investments. His son William “Billy” Henry Vanderbilt doubled the wealth amassed by his father. From there, though, it was all downhill, financially speaking, as family members enjoyed the privileged life that extreme wealth afforded them. As an example, one family member lived alone in a New York mansion with 47 servants working for her.
The Vanderbilts descended from Dutchman Jan Aertsen van der Bilt, “from the Bilt,” in the Utrecht region of Holland, who arrived on American shores as an indentured servant in the 1600s and settled in New York City, then known as New Amsterdam; he later became a farmer once his servitude was fulfilled. Today, the Vanderbilt name is associated with palatial estates and institutions, including The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, but the wealth is gone.
Cooper, an award-winning CNN anchor, is the son of the late Gloria Vanderbilt, a successful clothing designer and artist, who as a child endured a sensational court battle between her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and an aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor and the founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, to gain control of little Gloria’s huge inheritance. A humorous touch is that each chapter begins with a somewhat relevant quote from Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette; the etiquette expert was a distant cousin of the main family. The 300-page Vanderbilt is so well-written that it’s a quick read. It’s also an important contribution to the canon of American history. Finally, the saga makes the expression from riches to rags in three generations relevant anew. Moneyed families, take note.
Best Portable Estate-Planning Book: Estate Planning 101
This compact book (4.5” x 7.5”) is thorough and easy-to-understand, and it’s light enough to carry around to read while traveling or commuting. Authors Vicki Cook and Amy Blacklock, are co-founders of the personal finance website Women Who Money.
They start out by explaining the word estate—assets you accumulate at any one time. They define your “financial house,” how to care for yourself with legal documents and insurance; documenting your end-of-life wishes; whether you need a trust; taxation of estates; and factoring in the size of your family, even if it’s only you. They review how to provide for pets once you’re gone (“legally, pets cannot hold property” or inherit anything, but their care can be directed by a trust) and delve into common estate-planning mistakes.
Checklists, definitions, and charts punctuate the book, reinforcing points you need to understand. Particularly useful is a checklist near the end that reminds you how to organize your information systematically, so that once you’ve died or become incapacitated, your executor knows where to find information and whom to contact.
Best for Saving Money: The Complete Book of Wills, Estates, and Trusts
If you want to write your own will, avoid probate, reduce gift and estate taxes, and hire and, if needed, fire, an estate lawyer, Alexander A. Bove, Jr., and Melissa Langa’s Complete Book details these actions and a host of others.
This latest edition adds “some special new planning concepts, such as trust decanting and spousal lifetime access trusts,” the authors, both attorneys, write. They’ve also expanded the end-of-the-book glossary, adding dozens of terms commonly used in the field of trusts and estates.
They start out discussing the will of Alfred Nobel, creator of the Nobel prize. His handwritten document in Swedish, done without the aid of an attorney, created so much misunderstanding that it took years of protracted legal battles to figure out the deceased’s intentions on many points, including the selection of prizes and candidates for the prestigious award.
Once authors Bove and Langa have wrapped up coverage in each of the 14 chapters, a “Keep This in Mind” section reminds you to consider or reconsider what’s been discussed in a practical way that suits your needs. They finish the book with a checklist and a timeline of when actions must be taken following the decedent’s death.
Best Anti-Scam Book: Stand Up to Elder Financial Abuse
About 40% of senior Americans have experienced elder financial abuse in a five-year period, according to True Link, a financial tech firm that caters to individuals who are older, disabled, or recovering from addiction, writes John Rotondi, CFE, CPA. His Stand Up to Elder Financial Abuse isa heavily annotated book with comprehensive advice on one of the biggest problems impacting people as they age.
Rotondi cites numerous examples of the elderly being robbed of their finances, including famous people such as the socialite Brooke Astor and the actor Mickey Rooney, and details the various scams and swindles that everyday Americans encounter, He lays out how scams work and how to counter them in the chapters ``Don't Take the Bait!” “Like Kin, But Less Than Kind,” and “RoboCop for RoboCallers?” This book is an eye-opener for anyone who believes they cannot be scammed and validation for those who have been. In the chapter “Fighting Back,” the author spells out how to protect yourself and cites reputable agencies and organizations that offer help.
Best for Organizing Key Information: ABA/AARP Checklist for My Family
One of the biggest headaches for survivors or executors is that documents of a deceased person are scattered in different places, or, worse, nonexistent, thereby holding up moving forward and following up on the deceased’s final wishes. In Sally Balch Hurme’s 270-page Checklist for My Family, this AARP notebook, published in conjunction with the American Bar Association, offers an easy way to centralize all the critical information.
Hurme—an attorney, a long-time employee of the AARP, and author of many books—asks readers to fill in the blanks on personal information, contacts, memberships, pets, religious affiliations, and even hobbies and awards. She also leaves a place to add letters to loved ones, giving the executor a clear biographical picture of who the person was. She even asks for information on hobbies and awards.
Chapters cover the financial side, including insurance, banking and savings, investments, retirement benefits, veterans benefits, real estate, other assets and debts, will, trust and power of attorney for finances, and medical conditions and last wishes. The final chapter offers resources, such as links to websites, for reliable up-to-date advice.
Best on Probate: How To Avoid Probate for Everyone
“Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate” is a quote from short-story writer, journalist, and American Civil War veteran Ambrose Bierce, from Epigrams of a Cynic. Author Ronald Farrington Sharp uses it on his dedication page of How to Avoid Probate for Everyone.
Sharp compares avoiding probate to shunning an antidote for a snake bite, which is, like probate, “indispensable, if you need it, but something you hope you never have to use.” That’s because probate leads to hefty fees that can be avoided if you file the proper legal documents. Writes Sharp: “Probate is a broad term that encompasses all the functions of a probate court, including settling a decedent’s estate as well as myriad other functions involving estates, the disabled, and children.”
Sharp is a family and estate law attorney and the author of Living Trusts for Everyone and Winning the Divorce Wars. He writes that some books on probate avoidance recommend using revocable trusts as a will alternative, yet he contends that they aren’t always the best way to go and offers other options. He writes that you can work through your estate needs by consulting with more than one estate attorney and ensuring that she or he is providing you with a customized estate plan, not a boilerplate one. Laws governing estates, Sharp notes, vary by state and they are subject to changes and updates, so go into your meetings with a lawyer knowing that, while trusts can be useful, in some situations, an astute attorney can come up with alternatives to them that can save you money.
The appendix includes sample documents–power of attorney, advance healthcare directive, durable power of attorney, simple trust, pour-over will, and others–and the book ends with a glossary of terms.
Best on Guardianships: Guardianships and the Elderly: The Perfect Crime
Few quality books exist that address guardianships, even though this is a growing national problem and the consequences for the person under one, the ward, and their loved ones can be dire. In Guardianships and the Elderly: The Perfect Crime, Sam Sugar, M.D., founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianships, has written a comprehensive book that lays out the situation and offers remedies to combat it.
While there are many types of guardianships, including those known as conservatorships, this book focuses on professional, for-profit ones in which “the court hands over absolute control of a person who has been legally and procedurally deemed incapable of adequately taking care of him or herself–and who has assets,” writes Sugar. “These assets can include homes, savings and brokerage accounts, jewelry, and Social Security payments, as well as property of value.”
In a guardianship or conservatorship, the court awards a professional guardian absolute control over an individual and his or her assets; the ward then loses all rights to their assets. The guardian has carte blanche to charge whatever he or she wants for services and can forbid loved ones from visiting the ward and essentially enrich themselves at the expense of the ward.
A recent high-profile case of a conservatorship wasn’t of an elderly person, but of pop star Britney Spears, whose father, Jamie Spears, was her conservator who controlled her for many years until another conservator took over. Between 2008 and 2021, the singer’s finances, medical life, and personal life were under conservatorship. A court ended the arrangement at Britney’s request.
Nearly everyone has heard about the Vanderbilt family, whose patriarchs over two generations bore the title “the richest man in America.” In Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe, you learn how investments in railroads and shipping brought the family immense wealth and social standing. Yet, their descendents were such champions of spending and indulging in the high life with their mansions, over-the-top parties, trips abroad, and way too many servants, jewels, and haute couture that the dynasty eventually ended up penniless. This entertaining book doubles as a cautionary tale about the damage lack of prudent estate planning can do even to the richest of families.
Why Trust Investopedia?
Michelle Lodge knows how to find the best of their kind in the book world. She has been published in Publishers Weekly and was an editor and writer for Library Journal, both of which cover books and the industry. While a book-review editor at LJ, which recommends books for public library collections, she selected a number of top books on estate planning for review. She was also the editor of the On Wall Street Book Club, in which she reviewed books and interviewed authors on a podcast.
Seeking out a diversified field of books on estate planning requires lots of reading, including releases from book publishers and industry consultants, a passel of contenders, as well as the Financial Times, the New York Times, the London Times, and others and consultations with many experts. Lodge also pulled her resources together by collecting recommendations from Investopedia Financial Review Board members and Investopedia editors. Lodge’s aim is to present the reader with factual, actionable books that are well-written, enjoyable to read, and that cover the bases in subject matter and expertise. Her goal is also to tap into a diverse pool of new writers, whose coverage reveals the many influences on and perspectives about estate planning.
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