11th Jan 2016

Estate planning attorneys don’t always “feel the love,” and often feel neglected.  However, we are just like everyone else, even though most of our clients like us, they don’t always enjoy talking to us. The conversations we engage in are sometimes difficult, filled with talk of illness, death, taxes, and challenging family situations. These are emotional topics that we don’t want to discuss, and instead ignore and hope the issues will resolve themselves. But, as estate planning attorneys we have seen firsthand how the advice and guidance we provide makes a difference in the lives of our clients and their families.

#1 You are diagnosed with a serious illness

If you are diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness, sitting down with your estate planning attorney is not going to be on the top of your list of things to do.  The shock of the information you are dealing with is like a kick in the stomach, and the last thing you want to do is think about becoming unable to make decisions for yourself. However, now is exactly the time you should be having those conversations, as difficult as they may appear.  Many types of illnesses will result in single, or multiple periods of incapacity. It is important to plan for your incapacity and death while you are still competent to make decisions about your future.

A priority is to sign documents such as a power of attorney and health care documents that will ensure your health care wishes are known and trusted people are named to make financial and health care decisions on your behalf, if necessary. Your attorney can also advise you about whether ownership of assets or beneficiary designations should be changed, or estate plan documents should be updated.

#2 There is a death in the family

There is generally no need to immediately call your attorney following a death in the family. However, it is important to touch base with your attorney shortly after the funeral to determine what actions may need to be taken.  Real estate may need to be secured, cleaned out or sold. Personal property may need to be distributed. If the deceased owned assets in his or her individual name, a probate proceeding may be required to transfer those assets to the deceased’s heirs. If the deceased created a trust, a successor Trustee may need to be appointed and the trust administered according to its terms.

#3 Your child is (or you are) engaged to be married

A child’s engagement is often a joyous time. After the initial excitement has subsided, contact your estate planning attorney about whether you should be encouraging your child to enter into a prenuptial agreement prior to marriage. Prenuptial agreements control the division of a couple’s assets in the event of divorce or death. They can be especially effective to protect assets one member of the couple owns prior to marriage (such as an interest in a family business or vacation home that may have been gifted by parents) and to protect inherited assets if a divorce occurs after the child has inherited assets from her parents.

Prenuptial agreements are also important in second marriage situations where each member of the couple has assets they will be bringing to the marriage and may have children from a prior marriage to whom they would like to leave an inheritance.

#4 Your child is experiencing difficulties

For many parents, it is difficult to confront the reality that a child may have substance abuse, gambling, or creditor problems, or may be in a bad marriage. When these issues arise, it is appropriate for parents to take a hard look at their own estate plan and make changes if necessary. Consider whether the child is still an appropriate candidate to serve in a fiduciary capacity; or if the child’s inheritance should be held in trust rather than distributed outright in order to protect assets for the child’s benefit; or if the child should be skipped and the assets passed to your grandchildren.  Your estate planning attorney can advise you about your options and help you decide what is best for your family’s situation.

#5 Minor changes may still warrant a conversation

There are many less significant life events that still warrant a conversation with your estate planning attorney.

  1. The birth of a child or grandchild should prompt you to check whether the new family member will automatically be included as a beneficiary of your estate (if that is your intention), or whether changes to your documents are necessary.
  2. The purchase of a primary residence or a vacation home may necessitate updates to your power of attorney. A conversation about whether or not to hold the new property in trust is also advisable, especially if the property is located in another state.
  3. Even if your life is relatively uneventful and there is no new reason to talk to your estate planning attorney, keep in mind the importance of keeping your plan up to date. If it has been more than five years since you have met with your estate planning attorney, take the time to sit down with your attorney to review your plan and ensure that it is consistent with your current goals.

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