People don’t like to think about their wills—even people with an awful lot of property to pass on. Aretha Franklin and Prince are two wealthy celebrities who died without a will—and the former knew she was sick with cancer for years before her death. Some people make themselves (or, perhaps, their spouses make them) endure the process of visiting their lawyer and thinking through the decisions involved in setting up a will, trust, or other important estate planning documents. Should you?
The answer is: certainly, yes. Your spouse/life partner will thank you, your kids will thank you, and the personal representative of your estate (the new official term meaning “executor”) will thank you.
And, once you set it up, revisit it. Here, in a nutshell, is why you should create, review, or redo your estate plan.
- Create: Dying without an estate plan is awful. It means you haven’t thought through your assets and how they will pass. So the legislature of the state in which you reside at death has done it for you, and it probably did not have your particular circumstances in mind when it passed its inheritance laws. It’s “one size fits all,” and most of the time, it fits quite badly, if at all. It also means you haven’t named the person you want to be in charge of settling your affairs. Again, the state has decided who has priority. And you have left it up to the lawyers to “qualify” that person in the eyes of the court. This is not an easy process. Finally, it means you haven’t done the tax planning that comes with a good estate plan. So however your assets were organized during life will determine their tax treatment at death, and this is not always the best financial result for those who come after you. The family often saves money in the end when you pay the fairly modest cost of having a professional estate plan prepared.
- Review: If you have seen a lawyer and gone through the process, please don’t put the nice binder with copies of your will, trust, durable power of attorney, and other documents in a drawer to sit for a decade or two (in fact, don’t put them in a drawer at all before taking the necessary steps to organize your property and affairs to make them work—see my colleague Bryce Helfer’s article on titling financial and other accounts, also in this issue). Estate planning is complicated, and the chances are good that you will not remember all the details. So refresh your memory every couple of years. You may be surprised that what you decided in year one doesn’t look quite as apt in year three or year five. It’s possible that a bulletin like this from your lawyer may cause you to review your plan as well. So much the better! That review may lead you to the next big step—amending or redoing what you have done before.
- Redo: There are big events—such as the death of a spouse, sickness, divorce, financial reversals, or changes to a business—that may cause you to pick up the phone and get answers to the many legal questions that inevitably arise in their wake. But don’t wait for them to come along. As the saying goes, life is a journey with many small steps. The locale, the cast of characters, your relationships, your and your children’s health, your fortune (both figurative and literal), your desires as to who should benefit, your charitable inclinations, and (not least important) the laws affecting all of the preceding, may change in some cases without you realizing the magnitude of those changes and the legal results that might ensue. Your estate plan must change with your circumstances. When small changes give way to big ones, the possibility of dying, or even getting sick, with an outdated or inappropriate estate plan, quite simply, is not all that much different than having no estate plan at all. It just won’t fit.
So please, buckle down, call your lawyer, fill in the questionnaire. You may find yourself thinking about questions you didn’t even know you had, but are glad someone finally asked you. And your spouse will thank you, your children will thank you, and yes, your personal representative will thank you, too.