With the summer of 2019 right around the corner, it’s time to start thinking about how you can make your summer a productive one. It doesn’t matter whether you have an estate plan already or don’t; one important item to add to your list is getting an estate plan checkup.
Don’t Have an Estate Plan Yet?
If you don’t already have an estate plan, then getting one in place should be at the top of your 2019 summer’s to-do list.
Why? Because without an estate plan, you and your property may end up in a court-supervised guardianship if you become incapacitated, and your property and your loved ones may end up in probate court after you’re gone.
Worse yet, if you don’t take the time to make your own will, then the state where you live at the time of your death will essentially write one for you, and it most likely won’t divide your property the way you would have.
A common misconception is that estate planning is only necessary for wealthy people. But this simply isn’t true: anyone with a bank or a retirement account, a home, or a family needs to make a plan for what happens if they lose capacity or when they pass away. Of course, the complexity of a plan will vary depending on your circumstances, family dynamics, and unexpected situations. But all estate plans should be put together with the help of an attorney who is experienced with the legal formalities required to create a valid will in your state.
Over the years, people have asked whether they could write their own wills. When you consider the legal technicalities and formalities that are necessary to have a valid will that the court will accept, do-it-yourself online kits or using a family friend who is a lawyer, but not an estate planning attorney, could result in the court rejecting your will, and it would be as if you did no planning at all.
If you’re using a “boilerplate” will, sometimes referred to as a “simple” will, it just may not be enough. For instance, you or your child may lose a spouse or divorce, your child may pass away before you do or they may experience a serious medical crisis and lose capacity, they may have creditor problems, or your children may not get along.
All things considered, a will is only part of a good plan. You may want to plan for the management of your finances and medical issues in the event you lose capacity. Or you may want to protect your assets from the high cost of long-term care and ensure what you’ve worked a lifetime for passes to those you love the most. You may even want to keep your affairs private and not subject your family to the lengthy public process of probate. None of these things can be accomplished with only a will.
Moreover, without a properly drafted health care proxy and power of attorney, you may be subjecting your family to expensive and unnecessary court proceedings, where decisions are made for you that may not be what you want.
How Old Is Your Estate Plan?
Do you already have an estate plan?
If you do, then please pull your documents out of the drawer, dust them off, and look at the date you signed them.
Were your documents signed in the ‘80s or ‘90s, or, worse yet, before 1980? Then please run, don’t walk, to an estate planning attorney, because your documents are terribly out of date and need to be brought into the new millennium as soon as possible.
This year, 2019, the federal estate tax exemption has jumped to $11,400,000 per person, and the New York estate tax exemption up to nearly $5,500,000, which means that many people will not have to pay an estate tax bill. Because of the significant changes in federal and state estate taxes over the years, documents from years ago can be out of date and need to be changed in some shape or form.
While your estate planning documents may only be a few years old, they may not take advantage of the opportunities made available from recent changes in federal tax laws. And it’s not just tax laws that are changing; modifications to state laws governing wills, trusts, health care directives, and powers of attorney may warrant some revisions to your estate planning documents as well.
And last but not least, regardless of what year you signed your estate planning documents, think about all the changes in your life since you signed them. Did you get married or divorced, have a child or two, or a grandchild or two, or move to a new state? Did you sell your home, business, retire, have a significant change in assets, or win the lottery? Any major changes in your family or financial situation will certainly have an effect on your estate plan.
Estate Planning Is Not a One-Shot Deal
While it’s important that your legal documents are drafted properly, you benefit tremendously when you consult with an experienced estate planning attorney who can discuss possible scenarios so your documents accurately reflect your wishes. More importantly, if you make a mistake while drafting your own will, it likely won’t be uncovered until you aren’t alive. Then your relatives will have to hire a lawyer at far greater expense to try to make things right. Often, this cannot even be done, and your family is stuck with an estate plan that does not reflect your wishes. With the right estate planning attorney, not only can you avoid these pitfalls but also keep your plan up to date so your plan adjusts as your life changes.