You've taken the time to put your final wishes down on paper. You've chosen all your beneficiaries and laid out your end of life choices. You've even hired an estate planning attorney to make everything official. Are you done? How often should you review your estate plan? What life changes might mean it's time to sit down with your attorney again?
In this blog post I will discuss what happens after your estate plan is final. I will discuss how life changes can affect your will or trust, and how often you should review your estate plan to make sure it still meets your needs.
It has been said, "no plan survives first contact with the enemy." When it comes to estate planning, that enemy is time. Over the years, your circumstances will change in dramatic and subtle ways that will render your will, trust, or medical directives less effective than you want them to be. That's why it is a good idea to review your estate plan after every big life event, to make sure your wishes haven't changed.
No one wants to think about end-of-life decisions on their honeymoon, but you also probably don't want to leave your new spouse out of your estate planning documents. For a first marriage, the decision to include your new husband or wife among your beneficiaries may be obvious. However, in cases of remarriage, or when a wedding happens later in life, there may be additional considerations. For example, should your new spouse's share reduce the amount given to your children from an earlier relationship?
It is especially important to review your estate plan after a marriage if you have a living trust. A well-executed trust puts most, if not all, of your assets under the control of a separate legal entity. Deciding whether you want your new spouse to have access to those trust assets could have long-term effects that last long after you, or the relationship, have passed away.
The addition of a new child to your family is an exciting time, with a lot going on. Especially with your first child, there are new skills to learn, new worries that had never crossed your mind before, and new demands on your time at all hours of the day and night. As you are creating your neo-natal "To-Do" list, write down "review your estate plan".
Your first child will drastically change your estate planning needs. You will want to make arrangements to be certain the child is taken care of and provided for should something happen to you or your co-parent. This could take the form of a will or a trust naming the child as a beneficiary.
Whenever you add a child to your family you want to review your will or trust to make sure the beneficiary provisions still make sense. Will this child inherit the same amounts in the same way as your older children? Do you need to name a trustee or designate a guardian in case something happens while the child is still young?
Your life changes when you find out a child has special needs. That diagnosis will affect every day for the rest of your life, and your child's life. When a medical diagnosis means a child will need in-home supervision or ongoing support services, it creates a very specialized estate planning situation. Your child may qualify for social security disability benefits or other government assistance. But if your estate plan does not take the asset eligibility requirements into account, your child could find those benefits cut off when they need them most. Your estate planning attorney will need to prepare a special needs trust that protects your assets and your child's eligibility for government services.
A Michigan Judgment of Divorce terminates any claim your ex-spouse has on your estate. He or she is cut out as a beneficiary and as a medical or financial decision-maker. For many couples, that's a good thing. However, if you don't review your estate plan after the divorce is final, removing your ex-spouse could leave holes that need to be filled. You may need to select a new executor, trustee, or medical patient advocate, or adjust the division of your assets among your remaining beneficiaries. If you and your ex-spouse had children in common, you may also need to designate a trustee for the children's inheritance, to be certain the funds don't go to an unreliable co-parent.
For many families, the home is the single biggest asset in their estate. When you buy new real estate, whether you are upgrading your primary home or purchasing a vacation property up north, you need to review your estate plan to be certain that property is accounted for. Similarly, when it comes time to downsize, you need to make certain what is left is distributed fairly among your beneficiaries.
Entrepreneurs put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into starting a new business. They take pride in their ownership and in the success of their company. However, if your estate plan doesn't account for your business succession planning needs, your legacy may not survive your death.
A business owner's estate plan needs to balance his or her desire to provide for family and loved ones and the business's need for skilled management. Without an estate plan, a mom-and-pop shop may get divided up among adult children with no interest in the company. A successful small business could fall into the hands of a spouse without the corporate experience to carry it through the transition. When you open a new business you need to review your estate plan to account for who will take over the management of your company, as well as who will benefit from the profits. That way your business can continue to provide income to your family for years to come.
Even if there haven't been any major changes in your life, it is a good idea to sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney every 5 years or so to review your estate plan. Advances in medical technology, changes in the tax laws, and even everyday life changes can turn a good idea into an outdated plan. Use that 5-year check up to update beneficiary addresses, review your choices, and make certain your estate plan makes sense for you and your loved ones.
Rebecca J. Braun, J.D., is an estate planning and elder law attorney for Mobile Legal Services, PPLC, in Southeast Michigan. She can help with estate planning and trust administration. She will travel to clients, free of charge, in Monroe, Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne, and Southern Macomb Counties. Contact us for an initial assessment.